A friend from Iowa City, some time in Germany, lived in Mexico City for a while, in Chile currently- we met in California- has Guatemalan roots and says she’ll be visiting there for a few days. I’m some muddled mix of European gringo roots, am in Mexico, and that’s close enough to arrange meeting up. Slightly too far to bike in time, which is maybe a blessing after seeing the mountains between San Cristobal and Guatemala City. So instead Ace gets stashed in a hostel in Mexico, and I jump on a few buses. There and back in a few days- fast transit! Ximena, good to see you!
Pros: hit a reasonably good wind gap through the Isthmus, buffeted only a little by sidewinds that died down in the afternoon. Lucky. And that same day was flagged down on the road by a WarmShowers host (warmshowers.org, CouchSurfing for touring cyclists), then welcomed into a home for the night. Anyone passing through Zanatepec should look up Rodrigo’s and Lupita’s house, just follow the signs literally painted onto the highway or ask anyone in town.
Cons: struck by first bout of sickness just before crossing the isthmus, but luckily only spent one day emptying my guts everywhere. After witnessing one such episode, a kind woman, Margarita, at a comedor taught me the local word for soup (caldo) and let me crash there for the afternoon and night. Thankful.
Mountainous treetops to dry lowlands, where shade has even higher value. Note background windmills- a cautionary sign for cyclists, and even drivers here. Winds sometimes blow strongly enough to toss over tractor-trailers.
Entering Chiapas sees an immediate shift in road graffiti, nearly all taking on a religious message. San Cristobal de las Casas sits up at 7200′, so getting there involves a roughly 7000′ climb from the lowlands to the surrounding mountains. There are two routes to choose from, the new toll road that does the climb in ~40km, or the old highway that winds through small indigenous villages for a slightly longer 65km. I took the old highway, and even starting early in the morning, didn’t get to San Cristobal until late afternoon. A good climb, great for the appetite!
After a roundabout detour from Mexico City northwest to Queretaro and then San Miguel De Allende, now headed south again. After a good rest in Oaxaca, time to be back on the road soon. Some pics of the last stretch of the ride.
The old highway from Queretaro to San Miguel de Allende. Google lists this route only under hiking directions, which were fairly accurate, until I either missed a turn or the road just disappeared and I ended up in the middle of a farmer’s cornfield. He was a little surprised to see me there, but gave me directions down a network of driveways back to the actual road.
San Miguel de Allende. Hometown of Ignacio Allende, one of the important leaders of Mexico’s independence from Spain. Another beautiful colonial center, one of many such towns in this part of central Mexico.
Onto some smaller roads through the mountains from San Miguel, crossing from the state of Guanajuato through Morelia to Queretaro back to the State of Mexico. The State of Mexico is more or less a high plain, surrounded all around by mountains.
Right off the free highway to Oaxaca City. Smaller than the toll highway, and longer, but beautiful winding up along the pines and oaks before descending into the city. More mountains, more camping spots, just watch out for the cacti. Note: cyclists in Mexico are allowed on the toll highways for free, just ride around the toll booths and ignore the “no bicycles” signs. This is the Mexican way.
So much goodness to eat in Oaxaca. Pastries abound in the bakeries, if it has a fruit filling it’s generally a pineapple jam, delicious. Try too the tejate, a corn and cocoa drink, cold and filling. Walk around in all the markets, some open everyday, others, such as the big one in nearby Tlacolula, only held on Sundays, though even on off days there will be some vendors in a few of the stalls.
Oaxaca is also known for its traditional crafts. Teotitlan is a nearby center of Zapotec weaving, local sheep’s wool is made into thread and dyed with the area plants, to be woven into beautiful rugs or clothing, of every color, shape, and design.
Oaxaca City center by night. Great place to grab a bite to eat, people watch. Great city to relax in, but hard to leave. Hostel Azul Cielo just a few blocks from the center a great base. Next up, just gotta get across the dreaded Isthmus, where Mexico is squeezed between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Winds are rumored to be quite strong at times…
Outside of the Sheep Mountain visitor center up in Yukon, Canada, a couple came over and started chatting. They’re from Mexico, and invited me to their home once I made it that far. I finally got there last week, to Queretaro, Mexico, a city northeast of Mexico City, with a beautiful colonial center. Here’s what we looked like, then and now.
Thanks Irene and Chris for having me!
A rest, here, for 5 days, the first actual rest in Mexico. Anonymity in the enormous city, in the hostel too, Ace hides in a safe place on the roof so to everyone else at the hostel I’m just some scraggly bearded American wearing the same clothes over and over. Which we’re all doing but rain pants and a cycling cap, what’s with that bro?
I’m here with Daniel, below, who biked across the US last year and just graduated from Ohio State, moving to Sacramento soon to start working with AmeriCorps. Thanks for coming to visit!
We spend the days touring the city, eating, playing cards. This city is epic, so much character, so much to do. We stayed in the city center by the Zocalo, the central plaza.
Coyoacan lies south of the city center. It’s a beautiful colonial center, where Cortes originally built his home until problems with the Aztecs forced him to move back to their part of the city. There are big indoor markets here, street artists outside, cobblestones and elaborate churches. Also apparently an extremely popular coffee shop, just look for the place where everyone -everyone- is walking away from with a take-out cup decorated in the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag. Frida Kahlo’s home, the Blue House, it too is in Coyoacan as well. The house is a kind of contradiction, vibrantly painted, visually beautiful, but the artwork and the history of Frida inside bears witness to the pain and struggle of her life.
Then there’s Xochimilco, south-southwest of the center. The area is full of canals, upon which people rent long, flat boats and are paddled around for an hour or two or three, perfect for a little fiesta on the water. Mariachi bands and food vendors float around on boats of their own, entertaining, feeding.
And a day tour to Puebla, a colonial city to the west of the city famed for its churches. Here, the Chapel of the Rosario, was deemed the eighth wonder of the Old World when completed in the 17th century, due to its ornateness. Every surface inside covered with gold gilding, unbelievable.
Old World charm in the New World.
More, on top of the world, the view from the Pyramid of Cholula, third largest pyramid in the world. Although the Spanish built a church on top of the pyramid, and now the pyramid itself is a tad overgrown with grass and trees, so from many angles tends to resemble a large hill.
Not to be missed, anywhere in Mexico, are the panaderias. All of these bakeries, phenomenal! Variety in opulence, from sugar-cookies to the Mexican conchas, those balls of soft enriched dough with a hardened sugar coating resembling a sea-shell, to cake “popsicles”, to whole wheat biscuits with a light chocolate coating. We did our due diligence tasting as many as we could…
Also, our favorite quesadilla stand in the city. Figuring out the Mexican eating times has taken a little while. Many street food stands are open starting late morning until the evening, but promptly close at 5 or 6. The Mexicans favor a more substantial lunch and a (much later) lighter dinner, not exactly the American schedule.
But not everything is fun and games and food. A week or two ago some leaf-cutter ants visited me and the tent one night. Apparently they have a taste for tent mesh, so the inner layer of my tent now has quite a few holes and tears. A morning spent sewing up the worst offenses, productive, though now portions of the mesh look like there are giant spiders crawling up the sides. Quite a sight to wake go to. But so far it’s still usable, so that’s that.
From the border to the metropolis. Tamaulipas to San Luis Potosi to Hidalgo to El Estado De Mexico. The Mexican people are friendly, always. Sometimes boys in town will ride alongside me for a ways, men wave and smile, though older women tend to shuffle past, studiously ignoring my strangeness. The landscape changes, desert, mountain, city, it’s all here.
And other dinners, cooked on my tiny alcohol stove. Finding camping spots has rarely been a problem. Those out of sight are best, though cacti and spiky vines tend to imply that the ground will be littered with thorns. My inflatable mattress pad loses a noticeable amount of air during the night by now, though for being older than I am it’s doing pretty good. Plus, the less comfortable it is in the morning, the more likely I am to get moving sooner.
Who needs the hassle of dodging buses and taxis when you can ride in a bike party instead? Outside of Tizayuca, I met a group of cyclists heading to the Basilica de Guadalupe in the center of Mexico City. 120 riders on a pilgrimage, almost entirely riding single speeds with those flared out moustache handlebars. Great to ride in a pack in a city, especially this packed city.
Here for a few days with Daniel. Time for tacos, panaderias, and more.
Through Mexico, such a land of variety. Over the past few days traverse a different climate each day. The changes start with that invisible line, Tropic of Cancer, here designated by a giant yellow ball vivisected by a bold black stripe in the appropriate place. Immediately the humidity descends, welcome back, first time in months. Proceed on the road hemmed in by mango trees on each side, which give way to sugarcane fields and sweltering heat. But it’s harvest time, so the men are out chopping down the stalks with their machetes and piling the bundles into increasingly older trucks that clank by. Soon the mountains begin, ascending first into what looks almost like rainforest, jungle, and more sugarcane, then steadily descending and climbing out of small villages successively selling oranges and grapefruit and mandarins, plantains. At the entrances to many villages banners of flags colored red, green, and white fly. I’m reminded of the stories of prayer flags flying high in the Himalayas; are the ones here on account of the recent holidays or is it just a common tradition in mountains everywhere?
Progress another day or two higher into the mountains, and the tropical trees are replaced by the more familiar pines, with a cactus here or there for good measure. The roads narrow, increasingly hewn right out of the mountain sides, same with the buildings and towns, which become increasingly farther in between. Every so often come to a bigger town which is clearly the center of commerce for the villages surrounding it, with stores and fruit carts lining the main street, and plenty of houses perched on the nearby hills. Outside of these centers there’s a quietude and peacefulness to the hills. Birds soar and tweet, drivers and passerbys imitate them with a language of whistles and calls that take the place of verbal greetings.
Mist and clouds roil about, enforcing that sense of calm in their own way. Will enjoy it while it lasts, another day or two here then heading down to Mexico City to meet up with a cousin. Sure to be an entirely different environment.
Shoutout to Hipolito and family, a cyclist who passed me one day and invited me to his home in Matlapa. Many thanks for showing me around. Cycling community and human kindness extends everywhere.
Cross the bridge from McAllen, drop into a world where the chipped paint on the buildings is merely a backdrop for the bold written proclamations of things for sale. Evident right away too is the smell of gasoline fumes, off cars predominantly older but also smaller from their counterparts across the bridge. But there’s also a big public park right across the street too, and at least one in nearly every town big enough to have more than just a main street.
Drivers have all been courteous so far. The secondary highways have little enough traffic, and the main ones usually have at least two lanes per side, so plenty of room for drivers to pass. Everyday to Ciudad Victoria featured strong winds coming off the Gulf, so with those and to avoid stressing my knee I’ve been sticking to 100km days. Nice to be back in the metric system again, though Celsius temperature reports still take some getting used to. The weather warmed up again, sunny cloudless sweat-filled ice-cream-in-the-afternoon days.
From Ciudad Victoria, heading more or less south with mountains looming visibly to the west. Need to improve my Spanish pronto, the usual anticipated questions aren’t too bad but everything else takes a few seconds to process. Thankfully there’s time, and nowhere to go but up. Until next time.