The Baja Divide is a 2400km route that traverses Mexico’s Baja Peninsula starting in San Diego and finishing in La Paz. The route was devised and refined by Lael Wilcox and Nicholas Carmen over a number of winters spent on the Baja. The Cape Loop is a 400km circuit at the bottom of the peninsula that can be added on or some people ride it as a shorter and easier trip.
Words and photos by Jo Haines
The route has a reputation of being tough. For the entire route water, as well as food, needs to be carried between towns, with the longest stretch between resupply towns being 3 days (for average riders). The tracks are rough, from rocky to deep sand and at times gradients exceed 15% for short stretches. In the north rain can make dirt tracks unrideable - imagine riding your bike through inches of the peanut butter you spread on your toast. As you head south the heat can make riding in the middle of the day a sweatfest.
BUT WHAT A JOURNEY. The desert landscapes and cactus flora are amazing. The multiple crossings of the peninsula over mountain mesas and via stunning canyons link awesome coastal riding on both the Pacific and Sea of Cortez sides. The locals are friendly, and the snakes and scorpions are asleep (if you ride this in the winter season). There ARE sections of fast smooth riding and the fish tacos are hard to beat. The riding is satisfyingly challenging and we always felt safe.
The Baja Divide has been on our bucket list for a long time and the COVID pandemic hiatus from overseas travel delayed us tackling this journey. Alan and I are longer in the tooth than the predominantly younger American riders we met along the way but we have experience from having bikepacked through many mountain ranges of the world so we know how to travel light and how to journey in remote places.
Photo curtesy of @evanchristenson
We started our ride from San Diego waterfront on the 28th of December and arrived in La Paz 54 days later having taken 10 rest days en route (and including some half days). Doing the maths it averages 55kms per day. Expectations of speed need to drop on the Baja. Between the rough terrain, elevation gains and a loaded bike, 55km can take all day - even with an early start. It is best not to look at how fast you are going, sometimes walking can be faster.
We camped 21 nights and the rest of the nights were spent in accommodation along the way motels, hotels, cabañas, ranchos, and even locals ‘hog dog’ sheds.
I was riding my Curve GMX+ with plus tyres. Tubeless plus tyres are pretty essential. Tubeless to deal with the cactus thorns and plus tyres to help with flotation in the sand and comfort on a rigid frame setup. For a long time now we have been using the internally geared Rohloff hub and I have a Son dynamo hub on the front. The 14 speed Rohloff takes a lot of mechanical stress out of a trip in remote areas, they just do not fail. I run it with 32/19 tooth chainrings which gives it a very low climbing gear. Note this is below the recommended ratio from Rohloff.
The GMX+ has an adjustable rear dropout and this makes tensioning the chain a lot easier than other frames I have used. I needed to retension the chain a number of times and we will be flying home chainless as the route destroys chains. A biker we met on a conventional setup destroyed a new chain on a particularly muddy day. My GMX+ with 27.5” tyres* has good clearance and coped well with the one morning that we struck mud. Our bike companions at the time had a lot more problems coming to a standstill with the thick mud. *Note Curve customised my small sized frame to work with 27.5 tyres
The key equipment. We made an effort to go as light as we could on this trip. We just took the tent fly & poles from our Hilleberg Anjan tent and used a piece of Tyvek for a groundsheet. We carried a 700ml titanium Bot but no cooker. I fashioned a wire handle on the bot to make it easy to lift in and out of the fires we had at every camp. Lighting fires is so effortless that we were able to boil water for hot drinks both night and morning. On leaving a camp we made sure we left no sign of our campfire by removing any rocks and covering the ashes in the depression we dug out with sand also ensuring embers were well buried. We carried a small Ti shovel which came in use for morning ablutions and fire pit digging.
We did not carry our UV steripen on this trip as 95% of the water we used was potable water carried from towns and we boiled surface water that we camped by. We took few clothes and on a few of the colder nights camped high we were wearing most of them. A lightweight puffer was essential.
For water carrying we each had a rigid 600ml & two 1 litre bottles, soft 2 and 2.4 litre bladders each, plus an extra 6 litre bladder that we just used the once when we needed to carry 9 litres each. We were fortunate that it was a relatively cool season so water consumption was lower than if it had been really hot. For electronics, I navigated via the MapOut app on my iphone. I carried a 10,000mA battery pack, head lamps and we had a blow up solar lamp for the tent. As well as navigation the iPhone had me sorted for reading, audio books, music and camera. My biggest regret is that I didn’t upgrade my iPhone 7 for photography purposes.
Because of the water situation you either carry dehydrate food which requires extra water and maybe cooking (eg pasta and rice) or you carry hydrated food and less water. Our typical dinners, and sometimes lunches, were tortillas with refried beans, avocado, cheese and maybe tinned tuna. When we found dehy potato we would mix it with cream cheese, tuna and hot water for a simple tasty meal. We carried crackers, cheese and corn chips for lunches and breakfasts were muesli, yoghurt and maybe banana. There are plenty of snack bars available and we enjoyed mixes of nuts, dried fruit and sometimes chocolate coated goodies for snacks as well.
The highlights include: dropping down a rough track to our first view of the Pacific Ocean that is pumping due to a strong westerly, riding through the amazing cirios and Cardon cacti for the first time, the sunsets and sunrises, the amazing canyon lands in the later part of the ride, negotiating rocky ascents and descents, beautiful campsites be it mountain, coast or oasis, the seafood meals at small coastal restaurants, flying along firm mudflats, watching baby whales swimming alongside mamma whale on a whale watching trip, hanging out by the campfire, connecting with locals… SO MANY highlights
On our first night we camped near the summit of the Otay mountains and Alan copped 3+ holes in his sleeping mat from an invisible piece of glass - 3 were patched but we never found the slow 4 hour leak. The rain in the first week of the trip caused grief to other cyclists in that they had to reroute onto paved roads. We were luckier with our timing and were able to ride all the sections. There are a couple of short stretches of the route on Mex 1, the primary highway down the Baja Peninsula, and they are not very pleasant, and, there are some sandy stretches that were pretty ‘horrible. Really though the highlights FAR outweighed the lowlights.
Some Hot Tips.
- Travel light, travel light, travel light!
- Learn some Spanish before you go as it is so much richer an experience if you can communicate with the locals
- Be in good shape with some multi day riding experience under your belt
- Research the route and be aware that bike shops and ATM’s are few and far between
- Ride the route southbound as this favours a tail wind
- Bring patches for your air mattress
- Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the journey, to wait out bad weather and to take zero days in some of the amazing towns like San Ignacio and Mulege
- The nights are long on the Baja so load your smartphone with books or bring a tin flute!
- Don’t feel bad that someone has ridden the route in 11 days!
- www.alberttown.co.nz/category/baja-divide - my blog site for the full story of our Baja journey
- Join the Baja Divide private Facebook group - search ‘Baja Divide’ in FB
For GPX and route description downloads via a shared Google link, click here. (Note these notes were written in 2017 and in places are out of date so should not be taken as gospel truth). The FB page has the most up to date info