by Nancy Sathre-Vogel
Writer, Donne Tempo Magazine
Baja, California…There are a lot of things we expected from Baja California. Miles and miles of coastline…silky smooth sand…gentle surf…good fishing… But an unexpected treasure in the midst of all that ended up being the most spectacular of all.
My husband, our eight-year-old twin boys, and I pedaled away from El Rosario along the Pacific coast a couple hundred miles south of San Diego as we followed the road toward southern Baja. As our legs carried us over hill after hill toward the center of the peninsula, I will admit I was a bit disheartened.
To laboriously pedal a heavily-laden bicycle thousands of feet up and over a multitude of mountains only to return, in the end, back to the Pacific coast, seemed ludicrous. I wished the road simply followed the coast.
It didn’t take long, however, for me to change my mind. Within a few miles of leaving El Rosario we entered into Valle de los Cirios, and I knew exactly how Alice felt as she took those first tentative steps into Wonderland.
I marveled at impossibly absurd boojum trees and at the sheer variety and density of cacti scattered about.
That night, as we searched for a spot for our tent, we found the ground covered so thoroughly and completely with various species of cacti that it was a mighty struggle to find a vacant spot large enough to accommodate us.
But the real magic of the valley appeared the following day.
Cycling around a corner, it seemed that I was falling down the rabbit hole, landing in Alice’s Wonderland!
Gazing in wonder at huge boulders strewn around as though they had been tossed by a giant toddler, I began to feel that, like Alice, I had grown very, very small.
Imagine my surprise as I found, nestled in the nooks and crannies between boulders, cacti of every species imaginable. Cardon cactus, resembling its sister the saguaro cactus, towered majestically over the valley floor, regally offering protection to desert inhabitants beneath enormous arms.
Alongside the cardon stood the almost silly-looking boojum trees, like gigantic upside-down fuzzy carrots with pathetic crowns perched haphazardly atop.
Hiding in the crevices of the rocks waiting to be found were a multitude of other types of cactus. Along with the impossibly tall cardons and boojums sat equally tiny foxtail cacti, almost littering the ground. Filling in the holes, the long skinny organ pipe cactus grew alongside short squatty barrel cactus.
Elephant trees, like miniature baobab trees transplanted from the African Savanna, shaded rainbow cacti and a myriad of different species of yucca and century plants. Teddy bear cholla, with its detachable balls that tend to jump out and grab you, fought for space amongst the varied desert plant life.
There are over 125 different species of cactus found in the Baja, and I have little doubt that each and every one of them resides in Valle de los Cirios.
As I pedaled through this bizarre, magical landscape discoveries were made with each new twist and turn of the road bringing wonders to behold, remarkable sights to gaze upon.
Feeling impossibly small and insignificant standing next to gigantic cardon cactus one moment, then the next moment being uncomfortably huge towering over smaller, but no less wonderful, specimens.
The old man cactus, with its dense shaggy spines like a grizzly gray beard, reminded me of the King of Hearts. The queen’s army was ready to attack, perched upon their steeds of galloping cactus with strong sharp spines as weapons.
But the queen was conspicuous in her absence.
I laughed out loud at the ridiculous boojum trees, and delighted in scrambling over and around massive boulders with my children in search of Wonderland’s hidden spectacles.
At one point a rabbit scurried away, and I could have sworn I heard him mumble, “I’m late! I’m late! I’m late for a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye, I’m late.”
The journey’s destination, the small town of Cataviña, in the middle of this unexpected wonderland, was somewhat of a disappointment.
I expected to interrupt a tea party, or come face to face with the absent queen and her army. In my mind I had somehow conjured up images of a lawn party and croquet.
Instead it was only a village consisting of a small grocery store, a few small restaurants, an RV park, and two hotels. It nevertheless met our needs for food and water before we headed out once again to explore more of Wonderland.
Many miles later, as I pedaled away from Valle de los Cirios and the boojum trees and cardons grew progressively smaller (or was I growing larger?), there was a part of me that wanted to turn around…to pedal back into the magical desert landscape in search of the elusive Queen of Hearts.
But the rest of Baja beckoned. I heeded the call and realized Wonderland couldn’t continue on forever. I reluctantly pedaled away, hoping to find more unexpected treasures.
It’s hard to imagine any place on earth more incredible, more intriguing, or more extraordinary than Valle de los Cirios.
Maybe down the next rabbit hole?
Nancy Sathre-Vogel is no stranger to international travel or bicycle touring. In the ten short years since her twins were born, she’s lived in four countries and traveled in fourteen. She and her family are currently pedaling their bikes from Alaska to Argentina and will, no doubt, have plenty of tales to tell from their adventures. Her stories will be featured here at Donne Travels, Donne Tempo Magazine and at Family on Bikes.