I could pretend to be tough and say that I was looking forward to entering Mexico. I wasn't looking forward to it at all, I was dreading it. I'd stayed up late reading every piece of information about cycling in Mexico I could find on the Internet. I couldn't find a single person who'd crossed the border on a bike at Tecate, my chosen border crossing. I can only assume this has something to do with the fact that Tecate sits on top of a 2,000 feet high mountain range. I didn't know what was waiting for me in Mexico. I was scared of the unknown. I had been fed horror stories by so many people throughout this trip about the violence in Mexico. It was hard not to be afraid. I tried to take my advice only from cyclists who have actually ridden Baja. On the whole their experiences seemed to be very positive and trouble free.
I was up early but managed to spend to whole morning getting things ready. Part of my preparation involved the bumification of myself and the bike. Don't try and look up 'bumification' in the dictionary, you won't find it. It's a term I invented meaning to make things look roughed up a bit so as to appear not worth stealing. I was pretty much bumified already. My beard is now fairly wild and capable of storing large pieces of food for extended periods of time. I'm so tanned that I could pass for a slightly odd-looking Mexican. My bike and bags needed a little work though. I set about scratching off some of the decals on the bike frame. I also added a few pieces of gaffer tape to my panniers to make them look like they were falling apart.
It was after 11am by the time I was ready to leave. I said goodbye and thanks to Beth and Brian, my wonderful San Diego hosts. As I cycled through some of the more unpleasant neighbourhoods of San Diego I started to do a little mental arithmetic. It would be dark just before 5pm and I had just over 40 miles to cover. Normally this would be fine but the ride to Tecate was a non-stop climb meaning my average speed would be very low. Rolling into a Mexican border town and looking for a hotel in the dark was just not an option. I had to ride as fast as I could all day with no stops to have any chance of making it.
Once out of the urban sprawl of San Diego everything suddenly turned to desert. Things are artificially green in the city thanks to sprinklers. Out of the sprinkler's reach are miles of barren, rocky, mountainous desert. I'd never seen anything like this before. This is the kind of thing I was hoping to see in Mexico and given that I was now only a few miles from the Mexican border it was really no surprise that everything looked a little bit Mexican.
The climbing began very gently. I spent the next 20 miles gently climbing to nearly 2,000 feet. I was disappointed but unsurprised to find that my right knee was still a little painful. The road felt very remote. I could see for many miles and there was no sign of civilisation anywhere. Just beautiful scorched mountains. I wished I could stop to take a photo at so many points in the ride but I simply couldn't waste a second. It was too dangerous to risk missing the light. I casually began looking for wild camping spots at the side of the road just in case I didn't make it to Mexico in time.
I passed a police checkpoint. They were checking every car heading in the opposite direction, I assume for illegal Mexicans and drugs that had just come across the border.
I had one last 1,000 foot steep climb before reaching the border. The light was fading, I only had another 30 minutes of light remaining and I didn't know how long it would take to get past the border. I entered Tecate, California. This is basically a large car and truck park rather than a proper town. I rolled through looking for the border. I saw a few open gates with Mexico written on top in large letters. Through the gates I could see a busy town. This was it. I didn't know where I was supposed to go and nobody was there to tell me so I followed a car through the 'nothing to declare' gate. The whole time I was waiting for an armed official to stop me and ask to see my passport and check inside my bags. Nobody even looked at me. I just cycled under the Mexico sign and into Tecate, Mexico. I stopped and looked around waiting for someone to shout at me for illegally entering the country without showing my passport. I started to wonder whether this was really Mexico or just another American town before the 'real' border. I continued down the road into the bustling town. This was clearly Mexico. Everything was a bit shabby and all the shops were falling apart a little. It's so strange to be thrust so suddenly from the top of a deserted mountain into the heart of a busy Mexican town. I'd memorised the map of the town to allow me to reach my hotel without having to look at a map. I hate getting a map out in a busy and potentially dangerous place as it makes you a target for any bad people that may be lurking around. I found the hotel El Paraiso without any trouble. Had this windowless building been in England I would have assumed it was abandoned. It was extremely run down and a bit scary looking. I considered for a moment whether I should look for somewhere else. It was late and everything else looked equally run down so I figured this was where I would stay. I wheeled my bike in and got ready to wheel out my rusty Spanish. I said hello to the lady on reception and asked if they had any single rooms available. The words were a little slow to come out and I stumbled a little but she understood me which was a good start. She said there were rooms available and gave me the price in Pesos. I didn't have any Pesos yet and had been advised by some guys in a San Diego bike shop to pay in US dollars where possible. I asked for the price in dollars. It was going well. I understood her and she understood me. I was having a proper conversation in Spanish! It was $19 which seemed pretty cheap to me. She asked if I'd like to take a look at the room. I didn't really, I was pretty much sure it was going to be a flea-pit and that was fine by me as long as it had a shower and a lock on the door. I thought I might as well take a quick look, so followed her up to the room. 'Muy bien!', I declared politely as she showed me a small windowless room that would be considered an embarrassment if it were found in a British prison.
The lady on reception was quite lovely and patient with me when I didn't understand. She even helped me upstairs with my bike bags. Once in the room I took a bit more of a look around. Most importantly it was clean so I was happy. I took a shower. It was cold. I was sort of guessing it might be. I imagine hot showers may be considered an upmarket feature in Mexican hotels. It didn't matter too much, I'd spent the day in a sweltering desert so it was actually quite refreshing. As I neared the end of my shower 5 minutes later the water became hot which was a nice surprise if a little late.
I got dressed in what I thought to be my most Mexican looking outfit and headed into town. I was a little nervous walking around town in the dark. After a few minutes I started to relax a bit. It actually seemed like quite a nice relaxed smallish town. I went looking for the tourist office where I had to get some sort of tourist card validated. Apparently I needed this before heading much further south. The tourist office was closed as I suspected it would be. I would have to try again tomorrow.
I headed to the supermarket to pick up some food for dinner. On entering the supermarket a lady holding a clipboard said something to me in Spanish I didn't understand. I said, 'No gracias.'. I'm pretty sure this was the right answer. I've never met anybody with a clipboard I wanted to speak to. The supermarket was exactly like those I'd seen in the US. Most of the products were pretty much the same. There were certainly a far greater selection of chillies and tortilla chips than I've seen before but other than that it was a very familiar experience. The cashier spoke very quickly so I didn't understand her. After a bit of back and forth in Spanish she explained in perfect English that she was asking if I had a loyalty card. She didn't accept credit cards so told me I'd need to go to a different checkout. This was good because it meant at the next checkout I was prepared for the loyalty card question. The new cashier asked what I assumed was, 'Do you have a Tesco Clubcard?'. I quickly replied smugly in Spanish that I didn't have one, nor did I want one.
Back at the hotel I made some burritos and ate some tortilla chips. Tecate is famous for its eponymously named beer which I could smell being brewed a few blocks away. I treated myself to a can of Tecate and began to consider my next move. I looked at my map and tried to work out where I should stay next. Today is the first day of my entire trip that has not been planned with the assistance of a guidebook called Bicycling the Pacific Coast. I'm on my own now. All I have is my map and a book I bought about driving down Baja.