Piecing Together the Mountain Bike Puzzle in Baja, Mexico

The towns of El Sargento and La Ventana in Baja, Mexico have all the pieces in place for a thriving mountain bike community.

Oftentimes, the best mountain bike destinations are the most unexpected. I traveled to Baja, Mexico in early March to stay and ride at Rancho Cacachilas where I imagined the newly-constructed, private trail system was sort of a weird experiment to see if mountain bikers would actually want to ride in this part of the peninsula. Much to my surprise, the mountain bike scene in the area is not only alive but thriving, with well-maintained public trails, a full-service bike shop, and local mountain bike athletes with World Cup aspirations.

The Cactus Forest, and Punta Gorda

Rancho Cacachilas is situated high in the hills above Bahia de La Ventana (Bay of the Window) on the Sea of Cortez. At the south end of the bay a large trail system known in English as the Cactus Forest starts off with sinuous singletrack snaking through massive cardons, cacti that tower more than 20 feet above the desert plains. The trail is flat with a half-inch-thick layer of fine sand atop hardpack, making high-speed cornering far too risky, especially given the spiky flora lining the trail. The northern half of the system is well suited to riding with families and kids, and it’s convenient to many of the beach camping spots nearby.

Nick keeps his distance while photographing a large rattlesnake on the trail.

The southern half of the trail system gets ledgy, with short but steep climbs in places. Here the trail is rocky, and more open as the cardons give way to scrub brush and short, wiry trees. To grow in these conditions a plant has to show incredible tenacity, just like the trail builders who have scratched this trail network into existence.

Painted rocks mark the way along the trail, and most of the trail names are in English. The ex-pat mountain bike community may have started the ball rolling here, but today it’s clearly a locals’ trail network, enjoyed by everyone.

At the opposite end of the bay, a series of trails lead hikers and bikers alike to a secluded, rocky beach. Finding the trailhead involves a bit of guesswork as the main road through town fractures and narrows until riders find themselves in the vicinity of the start. The trails themselves are surprisingly well marked, though it’s easy enough to get your bearings with the shining Sea of Cortez on your right side as you head north.

There’s not a lot of climbing on this trail either, and the only technical bits come as it crosses an arroyo or two running perpendicular to the sea. On the way back we finished on a flowy singletrack trail called Los Topes that dips and dives down to a beachside finish.

In town

The town of El Sargento sits at the north end of the bay, and blends into the town of La Ventana to the south. La Ventana is popular with kitesurfers and beach campers, while the El Sargento side feels slightly more town-like. It’s here, right on the main road, that mountain bikers will find the Bike Hub, a full-service bike shop owned and operated by Rancho Cacachilas. Visitors can book a guided ride on the private trails at Rancho Cacachilas, rent bikes to check out the local trails, pick up parts, or have a bike serviced.

A fun pump track is located beside the Bike Hub, with low-consequence features to session with kids. Across the street, Mariscos el Cone serves some of the best seafood in town at very reasonable prices. The vibe is super casual, but be sure to bring cash since they don’t take credit cards.

Baja mountain bikers

While in Baja I got to know up-and-coming mountain bike pro Joel Ramirez. He’s currently sponsored by the likes of Specialized and Rancho Cacachilas, and he is working closely with Warren Gibson, who served as Greg Lemond’s agent for many years. Ramirez met Gibson through a chance encounter at a local bike shop eight years back, and they’ve been working together ever since.

“I was looking to do something, and I found it on the bike,” Ramirez told me. “I [could] never stay in my home on the sofa, watching TV, playing games. I [wasn’t] that kind of kid. I’ve always got to ride my bike.”

Ramirez, currently ranked fifth nationally among cross-country riders in Mexico, has his sights set on gaining UCI points and ultimately competing at the next Pan American Games. Eventually, he’d like to make it to the Olympics.

Like most pros, Ramirez has to find time to train while balancing other responsibilities including mountain bike guiding and mentoring younger riders. Local mountain bikers seem to be a tight knit group, with some who ride just for fun and others who have much bigger aspirations. With trails to ride, and sponsors and bike shops for support, mountain bike culture has truly taken root in Baja.

World stage

If you had asked me before my trip to Baja what makes for a great mountain bike town, I might’ve rattled off a list of must haves: high-quality trails, bike shops, and maybe a brewery or two. But now I think more than that, it takes a real community of riders working together to support each other to be great. Young kids need a pump track where they can learn and fall in love with the sport, up-and-coming riders need experienced mentors to coach and guide them, and shredders need the opportunity to build challenging trails in order to progress. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to cater to tourists as well.

Baja, Mexico may not be well known in the mountain bike world yet, but that seems poised to change now that all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Will it be the next big bike tourism destination, or athlete training mecca, or the backdrop to a world-class competition? I think there’s a good chance it could be all three.

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