Travel Journal. Why do men venture off into the vast unknown? Why do we seek out the vast emptiness that tests us to the limits of our very soul? For some reason, it feels as if we just stretch our hand a little deeper, reach out a little further, we can find ‘that’ which has eluded us all along. What is ‘that?’ Perhaps it’s true potential. The limitless potential to let go, to full embrace the moment, and live attuned to the eternal truth that binds time and life. We can never find that which see seek, whatever it is, unless we push ourselves to the edge of our limits and beyond the realm of our capacity to understand, to comprehend, just why we are here and where we are meant to go.
– Danny F, Nov 21st, 2013
My two and a half week cycling and hitchhiking trip that I took across Baja California was one of the highlights of my life thus far. It was an impromptu trip, spontaneous and unplanned. I was presented with a fork in the road, literally, and I took it. At a critical juncture in the trip I was presented with a decision: to go back or push on.
I pushed on – and indeed pushed myself to my edge; whereby I came to know myself and my limits better. For this reason alone, the trip was beautiful. And I don’t think you could pick a better destination for a trip like this than Baja. The landscape is achingly gorgeous, to be sure, but it’s the spirit of the place that makes it truly special.
I didn’t know for certain what I was looking for when I started this trip, but by the end, I had definitely found it. Join me on a journey of discovery and read along as I recount the telling of this epic adventure.
Introduction aside, let’s dive in…
Rubber hit the road. Reality sank in. And I thought to myself: “What the hell am I doing? I’m going to kill myself out here.”
I stood silently as I contemplated. There I was, unprepared and alone in the middle of the desert, with just my tiny-framed Sirrus bicycle and a pack full of clothes. I had plenty of water, to be sure, but as I looked out in every direction, there was no form of human activity for as far as the eye could see and no settlement for a hundred kilometers. I had arrived at a place of complete and utter isolation.
And I never felt so alive.
I was alone, but a silent sense of independence and freedom, perhaps twinged with a chilling foreboding of futility and stupidity, spurred me on. Occasionally the rare car or truck passed by and honked to ward me off the road (there was no bike lane), and once or twice a person shouted as they passed, seemingly to mock my futile effort to attempt this journey on a bicycle.
I’ve always wanted to feel as though I am unstoppable, and when I was younger I definitely believed it. I was invincible. But travel taught me otherwise. I’ve come to learn that I am just a tiny speck in the never ending tapestry that comprises the universe. It’s a humbling realization but at the same time infinitely empowering and liberating. When you realize that – in the grand scale of things – you have nothing at all to lose, you become free to do anything.
Rewind back five days before.
I connected with a dude through CouchSurfing, Aaron, who was on a mission to drive a hippie van from Toronto to the tip of South America. As his route took him through San Diego, I invited him to crash at my place. It didn’t work out, but after he crossed over the border he messaged me an invitation to join him for part of his trip. So I said, “Screw it, let’s go.”
I’d been to Baja California, Mexico, many times over the last several years, in pursuit of adventure and dental work. I have a long-term love affair with Baja California that continues to this day. In fact this was the very place where I began my travel lifestyle – I’m now traveling full-time.
I gave Aaron a list of recommended places to visit and stay during his time in Northern Baja, and he planned to stay in Ensenada for a week to get some work done – enough time for me to catch up with him. I took a train to the US – Mexico border, crossed a bridge, and rode my bike through the gate to the other side.
Ensenada, Mexico – Preparing for the Trip Ahead
Once there, I hopped on a bus and it was about a 90-minute ride to Ensenada. We embarked just before the sun was going down – and the coastal road gives a first-hand upfront view of nature’s wonders. Set on the edge of the world, California sunsets have a different feel than anywhere else. Especially in Baja – where the land is so rugged. It is the frontier, California’s own “outback” – perhaps not unlike the California that early settlers discovered 150 years ago. 98% of the peninsula remains undeveloped.
And as such, Baja feels wild and untamed. And it makes me feel wild and free. When night falls, my adventurous soul imagines that I’m floating high away into the universal tapestry of planets and stars. As you gaze off into the horizon the sun sets and the stars come out your senses awaken and your spirit becomes magically whisked away. That’s the effect that this place has on you.
Baja is a timeless land that makes you start to marvel and ponder about the vast and miraculous nature of the world. It’s a place that makes you feel like a brave soul for even coming here. It’s a place where man communes among nature and intimately comes to understand his own nature.
The bus pulled into the station and I reached the northern edge of Ensenada by nightfall, where Aaron and I spent a few days in El Sauzal, at Hostel Sauzal under the care of our host Maria Navarro. This was the exact place where my digital nomad life was born, two and a half years earlier. It was great to see Maria again. I excitedly recounted my experiences in South America and Asia to her, and we both remarked on how much I had changed since our first meeting.
At the time of our arrival, the Baja 1000 was just set to kick off, and Ensenada proper was humming in anticipation of the event. The city bustled and brimmed with energy. Tatted-up dudes in baseball caps proliferated the streets as competitors for the event showcased their muscled-up dirtbikes and modded dune buggies. Traditional Mexican bands played and people danced, large-chested promo girls handed out fliers, and a good deal of alcohol was thrown in to the mix for good measure. I spent a good deal of time wandering the streets and taking it all in.
The original plan was that Aaron and I would meet up, and we’d drive the length of the Baja peninsula together in his van. I had never been south of Ejido Erendira before – in my car – and the enormous size of Baja and its propensity for sketchy situations always intimidated me from going further.
I admit it – this place made me fucking afraid. It’s that familiar fear of the unknown, and I’d say it’s a beautiful feeling. It reminds you that you are indeed human, after all. That may be the reason why I always love coming to Baja. We have a tendency where we forget to listen to our own human nature whilst in our cushy and comfortable lives on the other side of the border. Amidst an endless sea of suburbia and strip-malls our instincts are dulled into a senseless obscurity where we never face any real threat or want. We fight back against this affront against our humanity through subversion. But here, in isolation from the trappings of consumer culture, there are no distractions to divert oneself from the important questions.
My main objective for joining up with Aaron on this trip was to visit the Cataviña desert. I learned of this wonderful and wild land from previous trips. Brimming with giant boulders, cacti, and desert flora and fauna – Cataviña is a refuge from the world where time literally has no meaning. Long had I dreamt of visiting this place and exploring its wonders. Somehow I intuitively knew that this land held something special that I needed to discover. It felt as though fate was beckoning me to come; but what I would find when I arrived I had no idea.
Start of the Journey – Setting Off Alone
Traveling together with Aaron – a fellow travel veteran – instilled in me enough confidence to finally explore Baja in its entirety and uncover its mysteries. Then came the news. Apparently, hauling a van on the ferry from the tip of Baja to mainland Mexico was prohibitively expensive, and Aaron did not wish to pay the fee. He decided to alter course, and instead wheel around the northern edge of the Sea of Cortez.
Unfortunately, this meant that my plans to carpool with Aaron were doomed before they began. Aaron’s and mine’s paths diverged just as soon as they had joined, and we wished each other well on our respective journeys.
I set off the next morning, with Maria’s blessing, and began to cycle south. Maria is not the type to warn you to “be safe.” If you worry about safety or responsibility, she’ll laugh and tell you to “just go.” “You have nothing to lose” is the point she hammered home the first time I came to El Sauzal and spent a month in her home. And I love her for that.
At the same time, this was the first time I’d ever attempted any sort of trip like this, and it’s fair to say that I had no idea what I was doing or what I would be in for. I’d completed a motorbike trip across Vietnam some eight months earlier, but traveling on a pedal bicycle is totally different.
After a few hours, I had just barely reached the outskirts of Ensenada and quickly began to acquire a healthy respect for distances. My goal for the first day was to reach San Quintin, some 184 kilometers further south. Fortunately, I took this trip in November and the weather was pleasant. Nevertheless, after a few hours, I was exhausted, and with such a long distance remaining, I tried my hand at hitchhiking.
Hitchhiking in Baja is really freakin’ hard. If you go on the road and put your thumb out, people will roll right on past without noticing you. So I immediately tried a different tack. I’d go up to the gasoline stations and start approaching people directly.
“Hola disculpe, vas al sur?”
(“Hello excuse me, are you going south?”)
The logic was easy: I asked them a simple yes or no question. I wasn’t asking them for a ride, but setting up the soft sell.
If they said yes, I could then ask if they could take me the same way.
“Ya me voy tambien. Puedo ir contigo?”
(“I am going as well. May I go with you?”)
I did my utmost to be polite, light, and upbeat. Even so… getting a ride was tough. If I was lucky I might find a local bus driver who could take me (and my bike) a small part of the way, but for the most part – the pickings for hitchhikers in Baja California are extremely slim.
Nevertheless, I knew karma would swing in my favor soon. It wasn’t too long ago during a previous trip to Ejido Erendira with my friend Justin when I picked up two Mexican locals who were walking along this very road and gave them water.
At some point I was somewhere south of Ensenada and on the LONG road to San Quintin when I approached these guys.
Fellow San Diegans who were making a weekend trip for a few days for the Baja 1000. Curse me, I can’t remember their names. At first, the dad seemed reluctant to take me with them – but the reluctance was more one of shock. The man simply couldn’t comprehend what I was doing: out here alone, in the middle of nowhere, riding a bicycle across the country. To him it was foolish and unsafe. But once he realized I was serious and earnest about the completion of my quest, the initial shock dissolved. He readily agreed to let me accompany them and I was welcomed into the gang.
The guys helped me tie up my bike to the top of the truck and off we went. I took a seat in the bed of the covered pick up truck with two of the teenage sons. We shared some awesome and hilarious conversations during the ride, and the young men listened in awe as I related stories of my travels.
We winded and bounced along for a couple of hours in the back of the truck until finally descending from a concrete bridge to a dirt outcropping alongside a dry river. It was here that it was decided to set up camp and watch as the Baja 1,000 competitors zipped by.
The group unloaded the tents, food, twelve-packs of beer, and ATV and the party began. The guys asked me to take their photos as they zoomed from place to place on the ATV.
Every five to ten minutes or so a motorcyclist or dune buggy would romp its way over the rocks and shrubs of the dry river, accompanied to cheers and shouts from lookers-on. Twilight descended but the competitors still approached and zipped past us at the fastest speeds they could muster.
The night was a festive affair which saw us drinking beers and dancing and howling like wolves at the moon. The music blared loudly. It was a night of care-free, innocent fun. I sat and watched as our campfire slowly crisped and crackled into brilliant hues of red and orange, then became smoke and wisped away into the darkness of the night.
As I gazed into the fire I felt as though I was peering into a mirror of my soul. The flames burned and blazed, untamed, wild, and free. There is something so primal that you feel as you stare into the flame – and so majestic.
It was time for us to part ways and for me to find my accommodations for the night in San Quintin. At first, the dad tried to convince me to return back to San Diego with them, but we both knew it wouldn’t happen. He wished me well. “I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for,” he told me. Then he gave me his address back in San Diego to come visit any time.
Negotiating for Accommodations
I went back to the road and set off in both directions to look around and ask about accommodations. The pickings were remarkably slim, and there were no accommodations catering to backpackers or budget travelers. Before I set off on this trip I made a commitment that I would only allocate a budget of $300 for the entire journey; I was not allowed to visit any ATMs in Mexico to withdraw more cash. I love to set challenges like this upon myself, because it forces creativity and out of the box thinking.
I chanced upon a pleasant (but not luxurious) hotel and greeted the innkeeper at the front desk. Then I put my negotiation skills to work, in Spanish, to see if I could barter or otherwise uncover any form of reasonable accommodation catering to travelers on a budget. The innkeeper, a young man plugged in to a match of soccer on the television, agreed to help. He gave me a key to the staff room and told me I could stay on the couch, in the same room where he slept. He also gave me a towel to shower with. The only caveat was that I had to exit from a side door when I departed in the morning, and not through the lobby.
Grateful for the assistance, I thanked him and we became friends. I also silently thanked the universe for always providing for me, as well as myself for all of the hands-on travel experience I’d acquired up to that point which enabled such a successful negotiation to occur.
The Long, Lonely Road to El Rosario
The area south (and east) of Ensenada is where the natural aspect of Baja really starts to unveil itself in all its glory. As you inch along further south, the natural splendor only continues to intensify. It is as though you distance yourself further and further from the artificial (manmade) world, and progress deeper and deeper into mother nature herself.
In the morning I managed to find a bus that took me a little ways outside of San Quintin, and went to a lone restaurant nearby where I enjoyed the most delicious home-cooked Mexican food I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten enough Mexican food to feed an army).
From there my long ride continued. This endlessly expansive stretch of road was utterly barren and beautiful. Exotic flora dotted the landscape, including this most unusual and magnificent bright red shrubbery. Glancing toward the sea as I rode, I was bombarded with tempting glimpses of secluded beaches off in the distance. They seemed tantalizingly close. These sights, like the sirens of Anthemoessa, enticed me hither. As much as I yearned to explore, I solemnly observed that to stray from the road could mean disaster. I was running out of daylight and there was no end to the day’s journey in sight.
Eventually the road veered away from the coast and began to ascend. The steady climb up the mountains to the town of El Rosario was grueling to say the least. I stopped to rest and drink some water. The day was getting late and more than anything I wanted to know how much distance still remained. I was fine with sleeping outside – if I had to – but knew from experience the nature and type of the fauna that emerged in Baja’s twilight hours, and had no desire for any engagements with them. The only option was to continue pressing forward.
The mountain roads chipped away at my vitality little by little until my legs felt like lead. At parts I disembarked and continued by foot. It was at this improbable point – where I was more alone than ever, when I suddenly received a text message from my friend Joseph. How I was able to receive any texts in this place I have no idea, but I felt immense gratitude in that instant.
It was like the moment when Buddha receives food from the young girl after attaining enlightenment – a reminder that we are all in this together. I recalled my life before this trip and all of the friends I’ve made. Alone as I was, it filled me with a warm sense of belonging, encouragement, and hope as I continued my upward ascent along the mountain road.
Finally, after several hours of grinding away, I reached a plateau and put the climb behind me once and for all. I was then greeted by a wooden figure of a soldier hoisting an orange flag and passed through a military checkpoint. The garrison of soldiers greeted me with a smile as they saw me approach. They offered congratulations on reaching this far on my bicycle and encouragement for me to continue on. There was also a small refreshment store where I stocked up on snacks and water. I inquired how much further ahead was the town of El Rosario, and they replied that it was just below the mountains. Finally – some good news; no, it was fantastic news, and I felt relieved at last.
I thanked them and continued. Soon the rode took a deep dive and my bicycle began picking up speed… faster and faster… until I was vaunting ahead at break-neck speed. I was going at least as fast as the cars I encountered. The feeling as I whooooshed down the mountain at top speed after such a long journey was exhilarating… such a rush!
I enjoyed a much needed meal and booked accommodation in a rather inexpensive but comfortable motel-type room. The shower had no hot water so I asked them to heat up a bucket of water for me in the kitchen. They immediately understood, and a girl returned about 15 minutes later with some steaming hot water with which to bathe and I rinsed off all of the dirt and sweat from the day’s journey.
The next morning, I chanced upon two Swiss guys on motorcycles outside of El Rosario’s 7-11 and struck up a short conversation with them. Turns out they rode to this small town all the way from Switzerland – across Europe, Asia, and North America. I don’t remember their ultimate destination, but I wished them well before they departed and then began the next stretch of my own journey.
At last, the object of my desire lay just 124 kilometers before me – my next stop, Cataviña, awaited.
El Rosario to Cataviña
I set forth from El Rosario and soon found myself in an endless sea of green pasture and farmland.
I passed over a hill – the first of maybe a hundred, and the landscape emptied out unto eternity. It was impossibly desolate, empty, and outright gorgeous. The forward grind continued. I crossed over one hill, descend into a valley, only to climb up yet another. On and on it went just like this. The scenery all around kept me spellbound; it was so remarkable that I felt as though I was in a painting. Mid-afternoon came and I had only covered around 40 km with yet another 80 or so to go. I saw no way of reaching Cataviña in one trip unless I planned to cycle until 4am the next morning. I decided to keep my eyes open and hope for a bus. Finally, after around an hour, I hailed one to a stop. After several hours of cycling, it felt so nice to just sit on a cushion and absorb all of scenic beauty around me.
The bus stopped off in Cataviña just before evening and I had little time to savor my arrival as I had to quickly scramble to find a place to lay down my head for the night. Trouble is, Cataviña is a tiny town of only about 50 people. There is one fancy high-end resort on the largest piece of property in town, but rates start at upwards of $200 per night. No way, Jose.
I asked around and a couple of people directed me towards an inn just outside of town, a few kilometers further down the road. It was still relatively early (around 6:30pm) but it was winter and darkness came quickly. This tiny town produced almost no manmade light of its own, and it was pitch black when I set forth from town.
The road winded and dipped and I suddenly saw a dirt road surrounded by white stones on either side. There were no markings or indication of what awaited me down the road. The whole landscape all around was as still and silent as a tomb as I began to tread tepidly down a dirt path to the middle of nowhere. I was out here, in the middle of nowhere, with god knows what type of creatures eyeing me and licking their chops hungrily.
Though the moment carried a sharp impression of imminent danger it also came with a profound sense of wonder. The night was so shadowy and somber and the stars all around so vivid that it seemed as though I was passing over the event horizon of a supermassive black hole.
After a long trek I arrived at a desolate and dreary looking building which appeared abandoned and also haunted. This is where I was to spend the night? To say my nerves were a bit on edge would not be an untrue statement. I checked all around but saw no one. There were no lights anywhere, just the gloomy silence of the night. What should I do? Should I leave? Should I go in?
I mustered all of my courage and approached the building. The place had a dark and sinister aura about it. And I was an uninvited guest – a trespasser. I worried that a dog or coyote would emerge from around a corner and attack. Yet there was no activity whatsoever. The building was shaped like a long corridor with several dark wooden doors.
“All right, this is it,” I thought to myself as I grabbed one of the knobs and slowly turned. To my surprise, the door swung open effortlessly and I peered into the darkness inside.
There, as if waiting for me, were three neatly-made beds of different size and shape.
Holy fuck, I’m going to die.
Ultimately, I decided to take my chance and rest here for the night. Would I be murdered in my sleep? Possibly, but I really had no other options unless I wanted to sleep outside. The beds were of varying type, and I was like Goldilocks assessing each one. Perhaps, like Goldilocks, I was falling for a trap and the wolves were waiting patiently outside.
I laid down and relaxed, and timidly turned off the light. I spent the night in a state of half-asleep, half-terrified. Something inside of me snapped and I began convulsing emotionally. I began talking out loud to my ex-girlfriend as if she were there. Of course, she was back in Bangkok – all the way on the other side of the world – and couldn’t hear me. When I flew back from Asia to North America several months earlier I cried because I was leaving her behind.
There, in that abandoned rancho, I took out my laptop and in TextEdit began to write the sappiest letter in the history of inter-ex relations. I don’t know why, but it seemed as if all the emotions I had kept bottled up inside of me suddenly erupted in that moment. I let it all out. Afterwards it was as though I hit a “reset” button which finally allowed me to end one chapter in my life and start another.
At some point, I left the room and spotted a pair of RVs owned by some friendly Canadians some distance away. As it turns out, they drove all the way down here from Canada, as they do every year, to escape the bitter winters. They re-assured me that I would most certainly live through the night, and shared some spaghetti for dinner. We had a fun and lively chat about travel, and my encounter with them gave me just one more reason to feel a sense of gratitude during this trip.
Daytime in Cataviña Desert
The next morning I woke up early and had a full day of exploring and climbing ahead of me. I discovered some ancient cave drawings scrawled upon the boulders, including an illustration of a strange fish with the most curious and unusual of features: abnormally large female breasts.
As soon as you leave the town and head out in to the open, a number of rocky pathways through boulders and canyons seem to stretch out endlessly in all directions, weaving and winding around this wild and barren place. And the climbing, of course. Who could forget the climbing? Millions of boulders dotted the landscape, standing silently like stoic guardians to maintain order and keep the harmony of this place intact. Rock climbing in this magical land was my deeply-held dream and I felt tremendously blessed to experience it at last. All the trials and tribulations encountered leading up to this point culminated in sweet victory and the fulfillment of my goal.
The more I look back at my experience in Cataviña, and the more I think of my desire to visit, it feels as though I was I meant to come there. As fate would have it, I even encountered this rock just outside of town with the words “DANNY” written across it.
Indeed, Cataviña truly had a special effect on me. This entire trip, though shorter than ones I usually take, was a transformative rite of passage which set me on a new life’s path and a new adventure. For months prior, I had been reeling from dramatic changes in my life. My long solo trip through the inner reaches of Baja gave me perspective, a lens from which to view the world outside of myself and my own problems.
Cataviña wasn’t the end point of this trip, and there were more adventures still to come, but that story will wait for another time.
How did you like this story? Please let me know – I’d love to get your feedback.