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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Until next time,
Rubber side down (that includes you Cameron)
Ed & Gaye