Southern Chiapas

In San Cristobal new sounds and colors fill my senses. Xylophone music and drums. More colorful textiles. Clean crisp air. We spend a day exploring the market and sourcing a few items. It’s been a challenge for us to find fuel for our penny stove. Sometimes pharmacies have it, sometimes hardware stores have it. Once we even found it in a liquor store. We hear something about the government trying to stop pharmacies from selling alcohol puro. Maybe that’s part of our problem. In San Cristobal we find the good stuff in a paint store.

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From town, the road winds up. I have no expectation anymore of flat ground. Everything is either up or down. I consider changing my gearing to a 1×10. I haven’t used the big ring in front in ages. Tyndall’s route delivers. He even finds a slice of double track with grass growing in the middle. This is the best kind.

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Fuzzy burros munch green grass on the side on the road, horses and pigs too. The pigs are hairy, with long tails. They keep their heads down, and aren’t easily distracted from the food at hand. I wouldn’t mind some greenery in my diet, I think. Fruit abounds, but fresh greens are scarce. Maybe I should take a cue from the pigs.

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Spanish is spoken here, but it’s heavily accented. Some speak a different language all together. I strain my ears to understand, but sometimes have to just smile and laugh. Usually they do too.

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We make our way to the Lagos Montabellos and the end of Mexico. Greenery abounds and the lakes are a deep blue. It’s a good way to end our time in Mexico. One more plate of tacos, exit stamps in our passports and we make our way to the Guatemalan border. I could tell you we made a run for it, but that would be a lie. The border is at the top of a very steep hill. Slowly, we leave Mexico behind.

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Where we went: San Cristobal – Chanal –
El Vergelito – Las Margaritas – Articulo 27 – El Naranjo – Tziscao – Carmen Xhan

The Heat is On

Much as we do in any other city, we eat and drink our way through Oaxaca. Cheese, chocolate, fruit, tamales, ice cream. New things appear. Brightly colored textiles and clothing. It’s all a feast for the eyes and stomach.

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From Oaxaca, we aim for the coast. We want to see the ocean again, but are wary of the heat and wind we have heard about. A circuitous route through the mountains promises a couple nights of camping again. We haven’t slept outside in ages. I don’t know if the moon is waxing or waning, or how the stars have changed as we have moved south.

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We have our sights set on a pass, just above San Vicente. Near the top, the small dirt road turns into a big gravel one. It’s been a victim of what seems like a classic Mexican road improvement project. Instead of going over or around obstacles, the road engineers blast through them. Regardless, we find a quiet place on the edge of a corn field with a view.

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I wake to a few meager drops of rain in the night before dozing off again. Packing up in the morning, a pickup truck pulls up. There’s people everywhere all the time and it doesn’t register on my radar.

A man walks up and asks the standard question: where have you come from?  That’s when I notice his companion has a gun. He explains there are problems in the town and that there’s been an accident. Again, where have we come from? We slowly explain we have come from Oaxaca and that we slept here last night. Another truck, two more men, the same questions. A request for our identification. We oblige. We wait patiently. Walkie talkies crackle back and forth. Tyndall asks one man about the new road, trying to find out where it goes. It’s not on our map. He answers, says it goes around the town and that it’s two hours by bicycle to the next town. Soon, we’re told we can leave. We do, curious about the accident and the problems.

Popping out of the field onto the road, we catch the attention of more men in trucks. Where did you come from? Where are you going? We start to explain, but then are relieved from our explanation by the previous group. Again, we’re told we can go. Tyndall politely asks what the problem is. A stabbing, we’re told. These men are all out, policing their own town. Out here, they are the law. There are no Federales in sight.

We evaluate our food and water supplies and decide on the new road. There’s not much desire to descend into a town in chaos.

Past the big cuts through the mountains, the old road prevails. It climbs steadily through pine forest, twisting and turning with the contours of the land. It’s peaceful, in contrast with our hectic morning.

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Spring is on the way here.

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We scout another campsite, relishing the cool mountain air and crickets. We know things will change tomorrow.

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Our shirts are soaked through before 10 am. The air is muggy and hot. The heat opressive. Moving provides relief. Bananas provide fuel. Locals lounge in hammocks drinking light beer. Who’s idea was this, anyway?

I cycle through the thick air. New England summers can be humid, but this is a new experience for me. A side road takes us down to the ocean. Locals surf. Rain clouds threaten. We find temporary relief from the heat in the ocean. But then face the challenge of drying off. Without a towel and without a breeze, dampness lingers. Sand sticks. Who’s idea was this, anyway?

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Behind the dune, we set up the tent. Mosquitos make camping here tricky. They start swarming at dusk, taking cover from the rain beneath our tent fly – they are cheeky little buggers. We lay side by side, sweating through the night. Who’s idea was this, anyway?

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Our curiosity satisfied and 500 kilometers of highway riding stretching out before us, we look for the quickest escape option to a more desirable climate. A day later and we’re on a bus, bound for San Cristobal. We’ll be there in 11 hours.

Where we went: Oaxaca – Yogana – San Vincente Coatlan – San Pablo Coatlan – San Baltazar – Santa Maria Colotepec – El Tomatal – Mazunte – Puerto Angel – Pochutla

On A Mission

It all started in Montana. Hot on the trail of Lewis and Clark we discovered that the Shoshone provided horses to Lewis and Clark in a time of need. But where did these horses come from? The only plausible explanation is that they were traded north from the Spanish. I didn’t understand. The Spanish?  What did they do in North America?  Only now, after three months in Mexico, am I truly beginning to understand the influence of Spain.

Lewis and Clark traveled west in 1804. Large portions of the United States were unknown prompting Thomas Jefferson to develop the Corps of Discovery. This is what I learned in school. What I didn’t learn, is what the Spanish had succeeded in doing to our South long before Jamestown or Plymouth. Or what Native Americans had been doing on this continent since before the birth of Christ.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Teotihuacan)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Teotihuacan)

When we reached Santa Fe, we began to hear about the Camino Real. A trade route reaching south into Mexico or Nueva Espana as it was known by the Spanish.

In Baja California, we had the chance to see a beautiful example of a Jesuit Mission, an example of the Spanish attempts to colonize the region. Remote oases surrounded by desert characterize the missions in Baja. Small refuges attempting to bring the local population under the crown of Spain and opening additional trade routes.  But the Baja never grew much beyond that. It was too remote, too dry, and not on any major trade route. Most of the missions there have since crumbled or been destroyed and used by the locals for other purposes. San Ignacio is one of the best preserved in Baja and also my favorite.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (La Purisima Ruins)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (San Ignacio)

Upon landing in mainland Mexico it quickly became apparent that things were very different from Baja. There was more money here. More people. The cathedrals larger and more ornate. Historic centers larger and older. Banners in Durango celebrating its 450th anniversary. We began to hear about the Camino Real once again.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Sombrerete)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Sombrerete)

In Zacatecas, our host took us to Guadalupe, one of the northern most Convents in Mexico. Used as a jumping off point, this Convent helped support the missions in Northern Mexico. It was also a part of the Camino Real.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Zacatecas)

The Camino Real, originally a loose network of trails used by Native  Americans, was improved by the Spanish as they saw fit.  The silver mines in Zacatecas and the surrounding area were a significant reason for its expansion. The road stretched from the port city of Veracruz to as far North as Santa Fe. Significant riches removed from the earth of Mexico traveled this road and were  loaded on boats for Spain, for the King. The Missions continued to grow and amass new subjects for the king, as well as labor for the mines.  Any resistance was dealt with quickly and harshly.  Under Spanish rule the church and state were seemingly one entity.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Mexico City)

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Mexico City)

Over time the road continued to expand and Spain profited greatly up until Mexican Independence in 1810.  This was an enormous blow to Spain which soon lost control of nearly all its colonies up and down North and South America.  While the Spanish Aristocracy has not been in control of Mexico for over 200 years, their presence is still heavily felt in the culture of Mexico.

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Photo by Elizabeth Ellis (Oaxaca)

Escaping the City

Mexico City provides a short reprieve from the road. We wander the city, eating cups full of fruit and vegetables. It’s bigger than it looks on the map and my legs get a lot exercise.

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There’s a bike path south, out of the city that follows the railroad. We ask about it, and again and again are told it’s dangerous. A nice bike shop helps us plan an alternate route south. We weave in and out of traffic. Stopping and going, slowly finding our way out. Raw sewage runs across the road and I fail to avoid it. I wish for soap and a place to wash my hands. Tyndall has some gastrointestinal distress. One could say it was a bit of a shitty situation.

Donkeys hauling wood reappear. Nopale farms cover the hillsides. The air is thin and smokey. The city is slowly releasing it’s grasp. Mexico’s two highest peaks loom above the smog. We’re riding towards the Paseo del Cortes, a road that sneaks between the two giants.

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I look up and see what looks like an ash cloud spewing from Popcatepetl. A few minutes later, another one. I stop and look around. No one else seems concerned. We keep riding.

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The road winds up through pine forests. At the top, we take in the view before enjoying the dirt road descent down the other side.

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Farms reappear for a short time. Then, cars and people everywhere on the outskirts of Puebla.

Elaborate churches dot the cityscape. In Cholula we try pulque. A drunk lawyer is adamant that we can’t follow our desired route to Oaxaca. He insists there are narcotrafficers there.

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We find our own way from Puebla, taking a bus for a bit to try and leave the people and smog behind. We succeed, sort of. I’m craving silence and wide open vistas free of human evidence. Women with children, men riding bicycles. Everyone is looking for their space in the world.

Every night fireworks are let off. Loud blasts fill the air. I’m not sure if this is a usual occurance, or if there’s something special going on this week. The roosters in the country seem pleasant in comparison.

We point our wheels toward Oaxaca, curious about southern Mexico.

Finding Green in the Sierra Madre Oriental

From Zacatecas we head east and south, but mostly east. We’re trying to shake the desert, but it’s got a hold on us. Ojocaliente, Ahualulco, San Nicholas Tolentino, Rio Verde, Cardenas.  Camping under a big Joshua Tree seems like a good idea, until I impale my head on it for the third time. Look before you sit around here, there might be something spiny out to get you.

Finally, finally we see green. The landscape changes. Birdsong fills the air. From Las Canoas to Tomosopo we drop down into a lush green valley. At the bottom, cane field after cane field. We share farm roads with trucks piled high, some with cane and some with kids cane pickers.

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Instead of cookies, I stuff my frame bag with fruit. Oranges and bananas of all kinds are available.

Rio Tampaon has the type of camping we have been craving. The grass is kept clipped by a revolving cast of horses. A skunk wanders by, and we hold our breathes. He doesn’t notice us, or just doesn’t care.

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Green is good.

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Tanchachin. Aquismon.

We pretend we are tourists at Sotano de las Golindrinas. By luck, we arrive in the evening and see the swallows returning to the cave. I just sit and watch, as they enter the cave by the hundreds in a big whoosh of wind.

In Xilitla we do the same, and spend an hour or two poking around Las Pozas. It’s nice, I suppose.

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We have never been good tourists, so leave the attractions behind and look for the places no one else visits. The roads wind up and down and around and over and through the mountains.

Agua Zarca. Pisaflores.

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Coffee is grown up high. Flat spaces are hard to find. Our kilometers per day decrease as our calf muscles increase. One day we climb 6,000 feet in 24 miles. I (try to) find zen in turning the pedals.

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Juarez. Metztitlan. Flat ground.

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The main road moves us south for a bit before we wander off again. Up in the high, dry hills I question my judgment. Climb high enough though, and the high dry hills turn to oak trees and pine forests. People live here, farming terraced fields ringed with magauey plants.

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One final climb up out of Mineral del Chico and we’re deposited onto a high plateau. It’s (mostly) all down hill from here.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

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My tires hum as I turn the pedals quickly over flat ground, but already I miss the mountains. Life is simpler there.

After some mapping mishaps, we have realized Google Maps is the best. Download a section for offline use and go. You might be surprised at where you end up.

Mountains and Cities

We gaze down at Durango. Heavy smog blankets the city. We’re hesitant to descend down to it, but the city has services we need. Down we go.

My eyes burn, nose runs and throat hurts. We’re lucky to be able to leave. We take the main road out of town and make a quick escape.

South of Sombrerete we follow quiet back roads, winding our way to Zacatecas. Some are dirt, some have been recently paved and a bit is even covered in cobblestones. The map is not always correct on this.

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In Zacatecas the night lights dazzle my eyes. The architecture is stunning. Bands play in the streets. People dance. Mezcal is served from a six liter jug off the back of a donkey.

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Our Warmshowers host Francisco takes us to the Quinta Real hotel. I have been reading Michner’s Mexico and get chills when I walk into the plaza. I imagine all the bull fights of years past. Francisco hauled radio equipment here for his Dad until the Plaza closed in 1975.

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We wander the city, discovering nooks and crannies, eating gorditas, drinking cafe d’olla and visiting the panaderias.

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Leaving the Sea for the Mountains

We eat our way through Mazatlan and go for one last stroll along the Pacific. In the morning, we pedal east, heading for the mountains.

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We have been told to take the new road to Durango. It has a shoulder and is straight, mostly. We have our eyes on the old road. It is 60km longer, reportedly has 1,500 hairpin turns and the 260 kilometers take eight hours by car. Perfect.

Mostly, it’s like this, twisting and turning it’s way over and around the mountains.

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The new road just blasts through, with tunnels and suspension bridges.

We climb and climb and climb, working our way up. At around 1,200 meters I come around a corner and find pine trees.

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Pine trees! Water drips from rock walls. A canyon opens up before us. It’s pleasant, really.

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The top of the mesa reminds me of Northern Arizona. A babbling brook invites us in, and we pass an afternoon, enjoying the sun.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

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