El Descanso, BC to Cataviña, BC

41.8 mi / 10.0 mph / 1421 ft. climbing
Home: Hotel Mision Santa Maria

I heard a few coyotes wailing in the middle of the night in our wild camp, but otherwise slept pretty well. The occasional truck going down the highway a quarter mile away didn’t do much to disturb the quiet. Rett didn’t sleep quite as well, which is understandable since it was her first night ever camping in the wild. I emerged from the tent just before dawn, to see everything just as it had been when we went to bed.

Our wild camp in the morning.
Our wild camp in the morning.
Our wild camp in the morning.

Rett figured making coffee would be too difficult, so we just had some breakfast snacks, and then got packed up and headed on our way. A few miles down the highway, we came across a man on horseback with his dog, trotting the other way on a dirt track that paralleled the road. He stopped and indicated he had a question for us, but of course the language barrier made it difficult. The solution? A real-life “Dances With Wolves” moment, where he held his extended index fingers pointing out from his forehead, and said, not “tatonka”, as Kevin Coster learned, but “vaca”. We love to talk to all the cows that we pass, but somehow until this point had failed to learn the Spanish word for them, and simply continued to refer to the few we’ve seen in Mexico as “moo cows” like we always have. So it was pretty wonderful to finally learn the Spanish word, not from Google Translate, but the way people from different cultures have always learned to communicate, before technology stepped in. On top of that, si, we HAD seen vacas, the night before, just down the highway a little bit before we pulled off to camp. We attempted to give some indication of how far down we had seen them, and when. Yes, we’re in Mexico, where a guy on horseback might stop some cyclists to ask for information about his missing cows. We learned a new word, and he learned that he should keep going further to look for his cows. “Good…trade”?

Just a man and his horse and his dog looking for their cows, riding by a particularly goofy boojum tree.

The day started with headwinds, not quite as strong as the night before, but still plenty to slow us down, and I was impressed with the positivity that Rett faced the conditions with, especially after the tough day yesterday. It was definitely good that we were able to knock off the extra mileage and climbing to shorten today, especially because we got to start with a bit of downhill to counter the winds.

Wild horses providing some scale (and character!) to the 60-foot tall boojum trees.

But eventually we got to uphill plus wind, which made it feel like an interminable slog to reach our second-breakfast stop. But finally, twelve miles in, we made it to El Helyaken, another lonely loncheria in the middle of nowhere. Where El Sacrificio was suprisingly cute in a lived-in, natural way, El Helyken was then even more-surprisingly cute in a modern, almost-HGTV way. Especially for a place so isolated, where the bathroom is in a shed around back, and consists of only a toilet, and a large barrel of water from which you scoop a bucket of water to dump in the toilet bowl in order to flush it. We both got double-orders, one plate of eggs/beans/tortillas, and one of pancakes. Cooked up fresh to order by the young woman also tending her baby and occassionally singing along to the songs on the radio. They even had WiFi, which, in true 1990s fashion, is once again a really important amenity in this region, since we’re looking at a week with no cellular service to connect us to the Internet. Even better, it was free, which is even more of a rarity!

Cafe Helyken
Inside Cafe Helyken

We could hear the winds howling from inside the loncheria, but there was nothing to do but set out into it. Rett again gamely entered the fight. Frequent stops was the name of the game, with the dry wind just sucking water right out of us. The route slowly curved from east to southeast, which theoretically should help us as the day went on, and gave us a bit of hope to reach for, but it’s also risky to put too much hope in the hands of the wind forecast, lest it be dashed to pieces by a fickle computer model.

This boojum tree wants nothing more than for a nice family to come cut it down and put it in their living room as a Christmas tree.
Rett riding across open desert after the cirios trees dried up.
Maybe Mexico is a dangerous, crime-ridden place after all? Someone stole the tops of these mountains!
More missing mountaintops, but maybe these were removed so we could see more of the blue sky.

We made a stop at another isolated loncheria, Loncheria San Augustin, to see if they had any cold drinks (this one also had the first loncheria-cutomers we’ve seen, a couple of guys who had passed us earlier in their Mad Max vehicle). The owner invited me to look in her cooler, and I dug out a giant Arizona “Iced Tea”, while she found me an electrolyte water as well. Perfect! And wow, did that iced tea go down well, exactly what we needed.

Color-coordinated drinks at Loncheria San Augustin.
Mad Mex: No-Fury Road. Dump truck with a boat on top pulling a disassembled bulldozer on the trailer.

The incredible cactus life continued in the morning, then things dried out and became more barren, but once we reached the high point for the day we crossed into the true “Valle de los Cirios”, and had ten miles of National Park-level landscape scrolling past our view. The tall, thin, cirios/boojum trees returned, in greater size and variety than before, along with all the other cactus life, some strange dwarf (real) trees, and most-strikingly,, giant boulders strewn everywhere. All experienced at perfect bicycle speed, on a nearly-empty road. The wind forecast even seemed to hold, and we ended up with some slight tailwind by late afternoon. What a payoff for all the work of the first three-quarters of the day!

Using strange humans to provide scale for the cirios/boojum trees.
Rett, Queen of the Desert.
Another cirios getting goofy.
#FindRett in the cactus forest.

We rolled into Catavina, a small, dilapidated town just like many of the other towns we have stayed in (though the first town of any size in the 75 miles from El Rosario), but with one odd difference: it contains the fabulous La Mision Hotel, another near-luxury hotel, with gorgeous courtyards, arches, promenades, and even a (cold) swimming pool. As a recovery for the two days of tough riding (and the last “nice” place to stay for the next several days), we planned to spend two nights.

Thus we were shocked to learn that they only had a room available for tonight, and nothing tomorrow! That sent us into a bit of a tizzy. The places we had been staying at had been so empty, we hadn’t even conceived that we’d encounter a place fully-booked, especially not one so large, and not on a Tuesday night! Well, when a tour bus pulled up, we began to understand. With its gringo-friendly setup, this must be a regular overnight stop for the tour buses, which would never stop in the other small towns where the only motels might not have climate control, or shower heads, or TVs. Even though the Mexican government hasn’t done anything in particular to designate this world-class natural area as a “park”, my take is that an entrepreneur determined it was beautiful enough that if he built National Park-lodge-level accommodations, the investment could pay off in a way that it would not in any other town in the area.

Anyway, we took the room for the night, showered, got some dinner at the hotel restaurant (in just before the tour-bus crowd sat down), and then I paid the 30 pesos ($1.50 USD) for an hour (or 128MB) of WiFi to plot out options. I learned on the incredibly-useful iOverlander app (which works even without Internet!) that many people had actually camped in the back of the hotel, so that could be a possibility. There are also apparently a few rooms at the “Pinos Mart” grocery store/lunch counter across the street. And maybe there would be a cancellation. Either way, we determined to still take a rest day rather than move on, and would figure out tomorrow how much we can actually rest.

Day 2

With the darkened room, comfortable bed, distance from most noises, and (primarily) our exhaustion from two tough days, we slept until nearly 8am. Much needed. Luckily checkout was 12 noon, so we got some breakfast at the restaurant, asked at the desk if there had been any cancellations (no), asked if we could camp (yes), and asked if the place across the street did in fact have rooms (yes). So we walked over there, but there rooms were *also* full! Crazy! The clerk there mentioned another motel a little back the way we came; it hadn’t looked open yesterday, but it could be worth a shot. But in the end, as much as Rett could use another night in a bed, she decided that we should just stay here and camp (and, be available in case a room opened up at some point!) It helped that all the reviews on iOverlander said how nice and accommodating they are to campers, allowing use of the bathrooms and other public spaces. So we could sort of get the best of both worlds, being able to enjoy the luxury amenities of the space for the day, while not needing to actually pay for a room! (a relatively-expensive but still-a-steal $66/night).

We got some snacks in the hotel store and spent the early afternoon sitting out in the shade by the pool. When it got too cool in the wind we moved to an inner courtyard and ordered a couple of margaritas. Rett came out from the bar saying she needed more cash than I’d given her, which made no sense since I’d given her 300 pesos, and last night’s whole dinner, which included one margarita, was only 811 pesos. We eventually deduced that this time, we got margaritas made with fancy tequila, and that’s what made two drinks cost more than our motel room did a few nights back. Oh well, a fair price for not knowing the language!

Hotel Mision swimming pool in courtyard #2.
Hotel Mision passageway.
Hotel Mision Courtyard #1. At least the expensive margaritas were large!

Eventually we moved inside the restaurant for some dinner, and then finally rolled our bikes out through the gravel yard behind the hotel, behind the disused tennis court, and pitched the tent on the desert floor next to a concrete pad with a palapa that had light and power outlets!

Sunset from our campsite behind Hotel Mision (which of course backs right into the cactus-filled desert that surrounds everything here, but for some reason it was still surprising to see this landscape across the chain-link fence.

The whole day, no one said a thing to us, or was concerned about our loaded bikes sitting in the courtyard. My impression is that for a strange request (“can we take out bikes behind your fancy hotel and pitch our tent?”) the attitude in Mexico is to assume “why not? There is surely no harm”, and only if necessary will they think through the pros/cons. Whereas in the United States, the assumption is “no, strange requests are bad, and cannot be allowed”, and only if pressed will they perhaps take time to question that assumption.

Night sky at our campsite.


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