29.0 mi / 10.4 mph / 1330 ft. climbing
Home: El Palomar Motel
The morning: Rett’s eggs for breakfast in our sunny AirBNB, packing up, and then riding through some Sunday brunch(?) crowds on a gringo-ish strip that took us back to Highway 1 leaving Ensenada. There were about 10 miles of semi-urban riding on the multi-lane road, some of which even included bike lanes! Past the Home Depot, Costco, WalMart, and OfficeMax, traffic lightened a bit, until we hit a few miles of construction, where it looked like they were doing a big expansion of Highway 1. Luckily it stayed multi-lane for most of it, so cars could still pass us. We then hit a brief section where it merged down to one lane, went up a dirt ramp, before returning to multi-lane road, but besides being backed up for a while, it was also easily-managed. It helped that Rett was feeling really confident and comfortable on the bike today, so all the starts and stops didn’t cause nearly the stress that they often do.
Once out of town, we started climbing into the countryside, and while the road went permanently down to one lane in each direction, we were given a broad shoulder of our own to ride in, making for a very comfortable day. And the mountains rising around us were beautiful, with rippled green slopes having a distinct “non-American” feel. Rett picked the perfect place to pull off and eat our bologna sandwiches for lunch.
After we topped out, we descended into the even-more-gorgeous Santo Tomas valley. My plan was to stay at a motel, El Palomar, in Santo Tomas. But I had mentioned to Rett a couple days before that I’d seen a single reference on the internet in 2018 of RVers camping at the Santo Tomas winery, just before the town. So she got the idea of camping into her head. We stopped on the shoulder at the entrance to the winery and debated whether we should explore the option, or just do the “safe” thing and continue the two miles to the motel. As we stood there, a car pulled up behind us with a couple of mountain bikes on top; it was a Mexican guy also riding the peninsula, but with his wife driving. He was interested in our trip, and, in a “finally!” for us, offered us some roadside candy. Muchas gracias!
After that, we decided, what the heck, it’s a nice afternoon, still fairly early, at the worst we’ll get to drink some wine. We walked up the long gravel drive, reading the informative signs about the winery (in Spanish and English): it’s 130 years old, the 2nd oldest in Mexico, and absolutely huge, growing dozens of varietals.
As we parked our bikes near the elegant tasting area, a woman from one of the groups sitting at the scattered picnic tables walked over and asked (in English) the last thing we expected to hear: “are you familiar with WarmShowers?” Haha, what?! Of course we are, but why are you familiar with WarmShowers?
It turns out Lizette (and her husband Xavier) are WarmShowers hosts in Ensenada! She invited us to join her family and friends, and then took us inside to get some wine. She then also asked the clerk for us about camping, and after a good amount of discussion in Spanish that we couldn’t understand, it was clear that it was not a thing. The clerk spoke English (my impression is that American/Mexican ratio of people who do wine tastings is still fairly high), but having someone there to discuss a rather unusual topic of camping (at a winery) for us in Spanish was really helpful.
We bought a bottle of Rose (they weren’t doing tastings, only selling bottles), and then we all moved to a larger picnic table outside where Lizette rolled out a giant map of the Baja peninsula and they all gave us all sorts of new ideas of places to go, routes to take, local options, and trusted contacts. It was amazingly helpful (as Lizette said, sometimes that old-school paper map is the best thing), and more than made up for the evaporation of the camping idea.
Then, Mike, an American who was part of a bachelorette party, came over and asked about our bikes. It turns out he was also a bike tourer, and was in the process of planning a supported group ride on the peninsula! So he also exchanged info with Lizette. After seeing no other bike tourers in our first week in Mexico, we suddenly encountered three bike-touring-related people at the magical Santo Tomas winery!
After they all headed home, Rett and I walked the beautiful grounds a little bit, and then finished our bottle back at a picnic table. The three employees locked up the building, said goodbye to us and the one other remaining couple, and cleared out an hour before official closing. We sort of bused our own table, then rode back out the long drive and around the gate that they had lowered. Informal Mexico: I guess we could have (stealth) camped there after all!
But, we continued on, across the tree-spotted vineyards in the warm glow of the afternoon sun, and stopped at the El Palomar hotel/restaurant/store. One thing I hadn’t been able to determine in all of my research is whether we could expect English-speakers working in these small-town motels, and this was our first chance to learn. The bad news: no, no (or very-limited) English here, which would then likely be the case in most places going forward. The good news: we still managed to communicate just fine, through a combination of our poor Spanish, hand motions, and even one employee using a bit of Google Translate on his phone (when explaining the crazy thing we needed to do to turn on hot water).
We were quoted 700 pesos (~$35 USD) for the room, asked to see it first, and when it matched our pre-adjusted expectations, went ahead and paid. Along with the key, we were given two(?) remotes to control the heater/air-conditioning unit, and determined that we could get dinner ’til 6pm. There was no TV, no towels, the windows didn’t exactly close, the shower head was just a pipe, and in order to get hot water, we had to walk around to the opposite side of the building and open a valve that would spew water on the ground, which in turn would trigger the in-line water heater to fire up (not sure why the shower running on its own wasn’t enough to trigger it, but that’s the Google Translate message I got: don’t worry about the water running outside). But once going, the water was plenty hot, we had our own towels, the heat worked well, the room was fairly clean, and there was more than enough room for our bikes. Given that we’ve paid more money for a campsite (and even a California hiker/biker site for two, with firewood, plus showers would nearly match that $35 total), this was a pretty good value compared to that.
After showering we went back over to the restaurant, a dark-ish room that had collected decades of kitsch and memorabilia, including hundreds of beer cans, from ancient to modern, hanging from the ceiling, and stickers from the various motorsports people who would happen by here. As the only customers (and only one other person seemed to be staying in the motel), we were directed to sit at the table right in front of the big brick circular wood-burning oven that dominated the center of the room, next to the aquarium with a turtle in it, and across from the antique refrigerator-sized radio. They put a new log on for us; romantic! We each got a combination taco/enchilada/chile relleno plate, and a couple of Tecates, and, well-satisfied, turned in for the evening after a very nice day of bike touring.