Cataviña, BC to Chapala, BC

38.7 mi / 10.1 mph / 2189 ft. climbing
Home: Wild camp in a hidden desert valley

A horrible sulfur-smell started wafting through our tent just as we were putting our heads down, and kept me awake for a long time. I’m not sure if it was just due to a shift in the winds, or if the hotel does some kind of water-processing overnight that causes the smell, but at least by whatever middle-of-the-night time the donkey startled us awake, it seemed to be mostly gone. Yes, a donkey (who we had seen the day before, so were somewhat prepared for) finally wandered over from the neighbor’s land and walked right by our bikes and tent, snorting his presence to us. Luckily he moved right along and didn’t start chewing at our bags or our tent, so we were able to drop back asleep again.

Morning at our back-of-hotel campsite.

In the morning, while packing up, I counted our remaining Mexican cash, and went into a bit of money panic. We had 4800 pesos (about $240), and I didn’t know if that would be enough to last us the five days to Guerrero Negro, the next likely place for an ATM to get more cash. When I told Rett why I was stressing out, she thankfully was supportive and said that we would do whatever needed to be done to make it through. Well, let’s get breakfast first.

One more time to the hotel restaurant (which thankfully is one of the few places around here that takes credit cards, thus saving that now-precious cash), where we squeezed in behind the crowd of bus-tourers and paid more than normal because the whole restaurant apparently converted to buffet-mode to serve them. At least our plates of chilaquiles had a more-normal Mexican amount of calories on them, unlike our previous surprisingly-small meals at the hotel. My theory is that they found the gringos are confused by the tortillas, beans, and salsa that come with nearly every meal (and I can’t say that I’m not in their number!), so they figure  it’s easier to just skip all those extras.

After doing our morning routines in the public hotel bathrooms, I armed myself with Google Translate and asked at the front desk if they had an ATM in town. Not surprisingly, no. Question two was whether the hotel would exchange money. More-surprisingly, no. Ouch. I had pinned quite a bit of hope on the fact that they would, since they (unusually for this part of Mexico) list prices in both pesos and US dollars, both on a signboard for the motel rooms (specifying a 19 peso per USD exchange rate), and on every restaurant check. So presumably people can (and do) pay cash in USD all the time, meaning they are familiar with taking and dealing with dollars, and even have a stated (less-favorable than an ATM) exchange rate.

They did suggest trying at the Pinos Mart across the street, but given they’d also suggested that we try there for a room last night, and that didn’t work out, we didn’t much hope with that option. We were glumly settling in to our last option, just attempting and hoping to making the money stretch long enough, perhaps by increasing our wild camping, decreasing meals out, and maybe making a big-mileage push into Guerrero Negro to remove an extra day of expenses. All of that would add to our stresses, that could have been avoided if I had just taken out more money back in San Quintin, so I was pretty mad at myself.

But, since the Pinos Mart was right there, and we were desperate, and the girl who we’d asked about rooms yesterday was fairly nice, we decided to give it a shot. I read my Google Translate to three uniformed employees relaxing at a table, and one of them, after giving a “eh…maybe” expression, shined a bit of light on our darkness and asked “cuanto?” How much? Oh, wow! Ideally, $100 USD, but it sounds like that’ll be way too much, so we’ll take whatever they’re willing to give.  She walks up to the register, opens the drawer, and counts out 1900 pesos. Holy shit! Muchas, muchas gracias! It was a simple as that, and she gave us the same 19-to-$1 exchange rate as the hotel, with no extra charge. A way better deal than I would have expected if I’d had the optimism to expect a deal at all. Whew, we could exhale again, and have an easier week ahead. Thank you, Pinos Mart for saving our asses!

Even if we hadn’t gotten the cash, our moods would have been lifted about 0.1 miles into our ride, as the town of Cataviña abruptly ended and we immediately returned to the spectacular stone-and-succulent forest that ended our last ride. And we hit a new record in emptyness for the already-empty Highway 1: we didn’t see a single car going our way for the first 35 minutes of the ride (and only saw two going the other way).

Which was great for feeling the unique magic of the harsh-but-vibrant environment we were passing through, but highlighted a bit of a mistake I’d made in my planning. I’d been talking about the 75 miles from El Rosario to  Cataviña as our “crossing the desert”, setting the expectation in both of us that once we made it to Cataviña , things would become somewhat less-remote and we’d have more resources. But in fact, it was exactly the opposite: Cataviña was only a stopover before launching us into even less-populated lands!

This horse, a professional model, was initially facing me, but once I got a head-on photo, she said “ok, let me give you the profile view”. And she was right, it’s a better shot! (the brown-white rocky mountains behind are an example of “here’s a totally different thing we haven’t seen before plopped into this landscape”)
A big mountain that stayed in view for a while.
Some actual (but still dwarf-ish) trees! (and one of the red cacti that appear every once in a while).
More boulders and boojums.

Besides another town-in-a-box (restaurant, store, camping, motel rooms) at Rancho San Ignacito, six miles out of Cataviña  (too close for us to stop), there was literally nothing for the next 27 miles.

“Cerrado” = “Closed”. A one-time loncheria (with the standard loncheria toilet-hut) no-longer operating (luckily we weren’t expecting or counting on any sort of stop here!)

Nothing but some big hills to climb, taking us to the highest point on Highway 1 through the Baja Peninsula, at over 2800 ft. Nothing but ever-changing vistas between and beyond the cacti. Nothing but some thin clouds to moderate the bright desert sun. Once we crested that high point, the landscape sharply changed to be more open and barren, but equally-beautiful and interesting and still ever-changing.

After the crest, the boulder fields disappeared, but 10 miles later this literal giant pile of rocks appears out of nowhere. I think, 10,000 years ago, a bored, neat-freak demigod saw the boulders strewn all across this land and she said “let me tidy this place up a bit” and collected them all into this pile. “ah ha, that’s better!”
Open desert country.

At that 27-mile point, we reached a Baja rarity: an intersection! Literally the first paved-road intersection since Lazaro Cardenas, 150 miles back. (My routing app has been giving me a warning message every morning, confused because our route has zero turns for it to direct me down.) Highway 5, coming south from Mexicali along the eastern coast of the peninsula, joins Highway 1. It’s a new junction, because until just a couple years ago, Highway 5 was unpaved for its last southern stretch. The new fully-paved route will surely change a lot in the region. And potentially give us a new route back north, if we decide to loop back to the United States at some point.

Perhaps in anticipation of the increased traffic, a new restaurant building was also completed recently just south of the intersection. We stopped for late-lunch/dinner, and it was yet another middle-of-nowhere building that was far more-charming than it had any right to be. Much of the furniture was crafted from cirios-wood, and that was just the start of the hand-crafted detail. I think we could have camped on their property, but the money-scare had again got the idea of wild-camping into our heads, so we decided to stick with that.

The new restaurant at Chapala.
Rett making friends with those for whom the language barrier is not an issue.
Heading south in the afternoon to our campsite.

Four and a half miles past Chapala (apparently the name of the “town” with the restaurant), we turned left on a dirt-and-rock road again recommended by iOverlander. It wound upwards behind a small hill, to a movie-location-scenic secret bowl valley, even better than our wild camp a few nights before. A perfect tent pad, shielded from highway noise, and all our own, for $0.

Our “site” at the unofficial campground.
Cactus (or, octolillo, in this case) thorns are no joke. They are on everything, and will find a way to stick you if you let your guard down even slightly. They get embedded in our shoes and are nearly impossible to pull out, so we also check our tires in the morning before hitting the road.

There was another flat spot, more open and with a view to the highway, that was perfect for watching another spectacular desert sunset. We brought our chairs and cooking gear up there and brewed up some tea and apple cider to drink while watching the sun paint colors across the clouds.

Rett and Lamby having a sunset snuggle.
Prickers everywhere.

We saw a truck-camper pull off the highway and begin heading up our way. Darn it, I guess that ends the walking around outside without pants. But no big deal, and were soon joined by Simone (originally from Australia), Brian (from Canada?), and their infant Bryson. We mostly talked about how incredible Baja is, and then both retired to our own quiet spaces in the dark.

Rett and our front-row seats to the show.
The last red burst before the stars appear.


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One response to “Cataviña, BC to Chapala, BC”

  1. Kerry Call Avatar
    Kerry Call

    Dear Neil and Rett… such a joy talking with you today on out Whale Magic tour. And really enjoying living vicariously through your blog! Sorry we missed the hamburquesas, but decided to take a walk through the bird sanctuary because not all of us get the exercise you do! Remember, if you ride out of Baja on Hwy 5 please stop and spend a night or two at our house at Playa Adriana, 45 km south of San Felipe. Happy and safe travels!

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