Mexico: the full enchilada


It’s been a long haul since we rode off the ferry on to the Mexican mainland at Mazatlan.  After being ‘nannied’ through much of the USA with our Adventure Cycling route maps, and having few choices along the Baja Peninsula; it was time to pick our own path through the huge maze of roads that make up the Mexican mainland.  We tried to piece together a course using ‘minor’ routes, back roads, and the occasional dirt option.  It turned out to be pretty hit and miss – a few standout sections, some dull grinds, and particularly shitty cycling conditions as we approached the megalopolis of Mexico City …

Seven cyclists gathered on the overnight ferry, emerging at Mazatlan the next morning and descending on a hotel breakfast buffet like a flock of ravenous seagulls.  After an hour or so we wobbled off to find a cheap hotel and settle in.  It wasn’t hard to justify an extra day off – any excuse to defer the 5000+ vertical metres of climbing that lay ahead of us on the road up to Durango.

The bunch waiting to board the overnight ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan on the mainland.

The bunch waiting to board the overnight ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan on the mainland.

Early morning arrival at the port town of Mazatlan

Early morning arrival at the port town of Mazatlan

Fishermen and boats on the beach at Mazatlan

It's a tough life - enjoying some beach time at Mazatlan

It’s a tough life – enjoying some beach time at Mazatlan

Known as ‘El Espinazo del Diablo’ – the Devil’s Spine, the narrow road that switchbacks its way up the Sierra Madre Occidental range was once considered to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world.  Testament to this fearsome reputation are the dozens of memorials that dot the roadside, often in clusters of three or four.  More recently, a major highway has blasted a route through this unforgiving terrain, using a spectacular array of bridges (115) and tunnels (63, totalling about 18km).  With the new highway sucking off most of the traffic, the old road now provides a blissfully peaceful, (if somewhat painful – ascending from sea level to a maximum elevation of 2700m) ride, with donkeys, chickens and dogs considerably more abundant than vehicles.

Camping in the village of Santa Lucia, first night of the climb to Durango

Camping in the village of Santa Lucia, first night of the climb to Durango

Looking across from our campsite in Santa Lucia

Looking across from our campsite in Santa Lucia

Sobering roadside memorials along the 'Devil's Spine'

Sobering roadside memorials along the ‘Devil’s Spine’

Climbing in the Sierra Madre Occidental range

Climbing in the Sierra Madre Occidental range

Always on the lookout for drinking water - this one a coin operated tap

Always on the lookout for drinking water – this one a coin operated tap


Continuing past Durango we were on a tight schedule (flights booked for our side trip to Cuba), but we figured we could squeeze in a little back road exploration.  Passing through some friendly and colourful little villages, we headed off up a cobbled climb, negotiating some tyre-gobbling cattle grids, and being passed by the occasional pickup with a pile of villagers bouncing around in the back.

A shady tree = lunch break

A shady tree = lunch break

Ever felt like you are being watched?

Ever felt like you are being watched?

Candy coloured houses in Mesilla

Candy coloured houses in Mesilla

Watch out for the bike tyre-gobbling grids

Watch out for the bike tyre-gobbling grids

No problems finding a camp spot here

No problems finding a camp spot here

Fun times

Fun times

A small coke sign is often the only indication that a building is actually a shop

A small coke sign is often the only indication that a building is actually a shop

When the road isn't shown on your map or GPS device

When the road isn’t shown on your map or GPS device

Popping back out on the main road we headed in to Zacatecas.  The frenzied traffic on the outskirts gave way to a relatively tranquil and particularly lovely historic ‘old town’ – a Unesco World Heritage site.  The city’s wealth came from silver mining, and has left a legacy of beautiful colonial buildings and an overpoweringly ornate cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next few days were defined by a howling wind that lashed us with clouds of dust/dirt from adjacent fields as we battled to stay upright.  Generally arriving late, weary, and dispirited into an unknown town, it was hard to drag ourselves out and about once we’d collapsed into a horizontal position.  But wandering in to the town plaza in the evening was worth the effort, and a highlight of the small towns we visited throughout Mexico.  It was nice to sit and watch as people emerged and street vendors set up food stands around the plaza.  

Atmospheric old church in Pinos, Zacatecas province

Atmospheric old church in Pinos, Zacatecas province

Random religious paraphernalia

Random religious paraphernalia

Donkeys work hard in this part of the world

Donkeys work hard in this part of the world

Random village with a monster church

Random village with a monster church

We’d read a blog post about a back route to San Miguel Allende – it was a good choice, following a dry river bed with little in the way of motorised traffic.

More ostentatious religious structures in San Miguel Allende

More religious structures in San Miguel Allende

Village on the approach to San Miguel Allende

Village on the approach to San Miguel Allende

 

So much colour and texture

So much colour and texture

Loving the local poster boards for some insight into Mexican life

Loving the local poster boards for some insight into Mexican life

Our approach plan for Mexico City took in the archeological site at Tula –  featuring a five-tiered pyramid structure topped with four massive basalt columns carved to represent Toltec warriors.  The ruins are largely overlooked as the well known site of Teotihuacan is nearby, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  While the giant figures were impressive we were possibly more excited by the fantastic cacti garden.



Riding out of Tula de Allende we knew we were in for a rough day.  Getting to the airport in Mexico City involved a section cycling on the ‘cuota’.  These are tolled highways which have a single positive feature – a wide sealed shoulder.  On the down side was the deafening roar of trucks, foul exhaust fumes, thick pollution (which left us with stinging eyes and sore lungs), and ‘scenery’ akin to cycling laps of a rubbish tip.  At least navigation was easy and we made it safely to our airport accommodation.

Cycling in to Mexico City - sometimes all you can do is sit in the gutter and comfort yourself with a bag of churros (fried dough pastry sticks)

Cycling in to Mexico City – sometimes all you can do is sit in the gutter and comfort yourself with a bag of churros (fried dough pastry sticks)

Having returned from Cuba, we decided that the best ‘escape’ route from Mexico City would be up ‘n over the 3650m Paso de Cortés.  Unfortunately two weeks back down at sea level and a Cuban farewell gift of a bout of gastro meant that we didn’t exactly surge up the climb.  I’m glad that there were few witnesses to my snail-like progress and long periods spent slumped over my handlebars on the edge of the road.  It was worth it though (I think) to reach the pass and take in the views of Volcano Popocatépetl grumbling away in the distance.

View from the Visitor Centre at Paseo de Cortes

View from the Visitor Centre at Paseo de Cortes

Cathedral in Puebla

Cathedral in Puebla

After an unscheduled visit to Puebla to buy a replacement for our broken camp stove, we plotted a course for Oaxaca, commencing our descent to the Pacific coast.  In true Mexican style our descent would also include over 12,000m of climbing, and a range of bushcamps including a goat pen, a pine forest, yet another ‘cactus camp’, and an illicit night in a Biosphere Reserve. 

The only way is up

The only way is up

Getting the health message out there

Getting the health message out there

We descended to farmland at around 600m before commencing the last big ascent into Oaxaca

We descended to farmland at around 600m before commencing the last big ascent into Oaxaca

Rooster not entirely happy with our presence - collapsed in the shade of a tiny shop

Rooster not entirely happy with our presence – collapsed in the shade of a tiny shop

We had a few days off to rest, resupply and explore in Oaxaca – our favourite place being the big market with a fantastic ‘food hall’.  The region is home to many indigenous groups, including the Zapotecs, and attracts big crowds of tourists.  

Street art with a revolutionary theme - Oaxaca

Street art with a revolutionary theme – Oaxaca

Hanging out at the cathedral

Hanging out at the cathedral


Off again, we climbed back up into pine forest, relishing the cooler conditions at over 2000m.  Descending first into damp mist and then into humid tropical jungle, we finally emerged on the Pacific coast into a landscape of parched, sparse, and straggly scrub.  The heat and humidity was incredibly intense.  Riding was like cycling in a sauna with the temperature cranked up as high as possible.  The (not actually on the) coast road lurched up and down, providing little shade and radiating heat from rocky hillsides that also served to block any cooling breeze.  Although it was nice to see the coast we couldn’t wait to get back up into the mountains.  

Contemplating the ocean at Puerto Angel

Contemplating the ocean at Puerto Angel

The beach at Zipolite

First we had to cross the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow ‘waist’ of Mexico which forms a kind of natural wind tunnel – as evidenced by the huge array of wind turbines.  I’d read numerous reports of cyclists being flung off their bikes into ditches by huge gusts of wind, others unable to maintain momentum and either walking for hours or begging for a lift from passing motorists.  It was strangely serene as we passed, with the turbine blades motionless in the calm of early morning. We were happy to have passed through unscathed, and continued on to a great camp at the Rio La Venta canyon and waterfall.  The custodians leave in the evening and lock the gate, leaving us with the place to ourselves – magic.

Descend around 800 steps and you can explore the canyon, river and Cascada de Aguacera waterfall

Descend around 800 steps and you can explore the canyon, river and Cascada de Aguacera waterfall

One thing that took us by surprise in Mexico was the amount of litter.  While some is clearly discarded from passing vehicles, there was a huge volume of household rubbish dumped along the roadside – and signs prohibiting littering just seemed to attract even more.  Happily some villages are attempting to address the issue, with signage, rubbish bins, and collection points for plastic and glass bottles.  

A continuous 50km, 2000m ascent took us into the mountains of Chiapas state, and to San Cristobal de los Casas.  This is another Spanish colonial town which is popular with tourists and seems to be home for a big bunch of gringo hippies.  Chiapas also has a large indigenous population.  Resentment at their economic marginalisation fostered political activism and the formation of a guerrilla organisation (the Zapatista Army), in the 1980s and ’90s.  A 1994 armed uprising and occupation of towns including San Cristobal attracted worldwide attention and led to an agreement on autonomy, recognition and rights.  Now deceased, Zapatista Sub-commander Marcos is regarded as a local hero, and graffiti around the city commemorates the rebellion.

Hard to miss the colourful shawls and skirts of indigenous women in Chiapas

Hard to miss the colourful shawls and skirts of indigenous women in Chiapas

Sub-commander Marcos - part of a huge pro-rebellion mural on the walls of a primary school

Sub-commander Marcos – part of a huge pro-rebellion mural on the walls of a primary school

Another day, another stop at a village tienda (shop) for cold drinks

Another day, another stop at a village tienda (shop) for cold drinks

Least favourite thing about Mexico? Huge speed bumps (called 'topes') that are rarely this well signposted ...

Least favourite thing about Mexico? Huge speed bumps (called ‘topes’) that are rarely this well signposted …

Splashes of colour on a dull and stormy day in Chiapas

Splashes of colour on a dull and stormy day in Chiapas

Leaving San Cristobal we decided to head up to visit the Mayan archeological site at Palenque. This was a surprisingly uncrowded site in the jungle, with howler monkeys shrieking from the tree canopy and iguanas basking amongst the rocky ruins.  

Gorgeous swimming and bushcamping spot on the Rio Xanil, famous for its distinctive aquamarine coloured water

Gorgeous swimming and bushcamping spot on the Rio Xanil, famous for its distinctive aquamarine coloured water

Tropical-style tienda (shop) in rural Chiapas

Tropical-style tienda (shop) in rural Chiapas

Atmospheric Mayan ruins at Palenque, Chiapas

Atmospheric Mayan ruins at Palenque, Chiapas

The wildlife is pretty relaxed

The wildlife is pretty relaxed

Amazing bas-relief carvings on display in the museum at Palenque

Amazing bas-relief carvings on display in the museum at Palenque


Reluctantly dragging ourselves away from the Italian Coffee Company store in Palenque township, we meandered to the border, riding only as far as needed to reach the next swimming opportunity.  Overcast days and heavy dumps of rain overnight suggest that the rainy season is on its way.

Roadside 'pelican' flowers - one of the largest flowers in the world with a smell like rotting meat which attracts pollinating flies

Roadside ‘pelican’ flowers – one of the largest flowers in the world with a smell like rotting meat which attracts pollinating flies

We slowed down, but sadly didn't see any jaguars crossing

We slowed down, but sadly didn’t see any jaguars crossing

Guatemala is just across the river ... the border at Frontera Corozal

Guatemala is just across the river … the border at Frontera Corozal

 

Until next time,

Rubber side down (that includes you Cameron)

 

Ed & Gaye

6 Comments

  1. Debbie Farner

    Wow another country about to be conquered. Seems like forever that we met you in Death Valley. Your pics of MX are amazing. We’ve done lots of MX mostly the coasts by sailboat with a little inland travel. You’ve certainly piqued my interest in seeing other places in MX.
    Glad that you are safe and sound and we look forward to more stories and photos. Cheers, Debbie and Al

    Reply
    1. fasteddy

      Thanks Debbie, yes it seems like ages since Death Valley. It seemed to take forever to make any progress across Mexico, but then it’s a big place! Looking forward to exploring Central America, although the onset of the rainy season could make for a lot of mud ….

      Reply
  2. Bob H

    Great photos and descriptions! Stay safe???

    Reply
    1. fasteddy

      Cheers Bob … yes, will be extra cautious with wild camping & ask around about different route options. Alert but not alarmed(!!)

      Reply
  3. Andrea

    Great blog post and pictures, really enjoyed reading it. Love the fact that we have some of the exact same photos and thoughts about riding in Mexico. Hope we will meet again down the road sometime soon! Happy trails!:)

    Reply
  4. Tony Shields

    Once again

    Great evocative, descriptive writing, great photos but:

    The food, the food, the Mexican food! How was it? Did you eat Chipotle for brekky? Enchiladas for elevenses! Tacos for tea! Drink Negro Medalo for nightime? Somehow, I think I am going to be disappointed by your answer……

    Reply

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