The story left off with a literal boatload of cyclists ferrying across the open seas from enchanting Baja California, to join the unknown Mexican mainland in Mazatlan. The length of the journey was such that around 18 hours was required to go from terra firma to tera firma. This includes a couple of hours for the ferry to swallow up a substantial meal of enough trucks and semi trailers for fill the 3 levels below deck, and savouring desert in the form of a handful of cars, 4×4’s and adventure motorbikes for the top deck. This is also where our bikes ended up, looking fragile bundled up alongside their motorised cousins.
The human cargo on the ferry felt treated as an afterthought, especially considering the confined space in front of a TV we were herder into in relation to the vastness of the ferry. Late that night as the credits of the second incomprehensible Spanish movie rolled on the screen in the common room, the penny dropped for me: I need to claim a nook or cranny for my camping mattress. Glacing around I realized I was basically the last person on board to have realized this, and all obvious spots were already tightly packed. But as my people say, ‘n moer maak ‘n plan (an Afrikaner/farmer makes a plan), I claimed the only booth in the dining area long enough to sleep on. The only small critique I could level against my makeshift bed is the lack of well, levelness – I was sleeping parallel to the roll axis of the ferry on a pretty narrow ledge, just shy of shoulder width. And so I spent a night gently rocked to sleep and violently waking up every time there is a deeper roll threatening to spill me onto the floor.
At sunrise we sighted distant views of mainland Mexico, but Mazatlan was still hiden behind many horizons as we cruised parallel to the coast. The final moments of manoeuvring into the harbour and anchoring along the dock draged out disproportionately due to my excitement to get going. After a grand regrouping and bidding farewell, the cycling clan split into 3 groups, the Canadian and French couple each going their own way, leaving Rob, Javi and myself asking each other ‘where to now?’ as the sun approached it’s zenith We’d hoped to catch the tail end of that Day of the Dead festivities, but after a couple of attempts admitted defeat: Mazatlan was nursing a proper hangover. The big fiesta had been the previous night.
Our night camping at the Red Cross in town proved us slightly wrong, but in the worse possible way. Just on the other side of the wall, on a balcony less than 50m from my head, and band struck up full tilt some time after 12pm. It felt like camping in the golden circle area at a music festival. But about 3 songs later quiet resumed. Only to have the next set kicking of 15 minutes later. This cycle repeated at least 4 or 5 times. Possibly double that, as the night passed in a haze of drifting into sleep and getting startled by the first drum beats. Turns out to have been a private birthday party, with multiple local bands putting on short shows. This I learned the next morning because Javier realised early on that if you can’t beat them join them. So he went over and had a couple of beers with them. What a guy.
The next day we got going proper, opting for the libre (free) road, instead of the typically more monotonous quota (toll) road. It was flat riding as the road headed south east and quickly the Baja desert seemed a distant memory as the landscape was tropical and lush with many kilometers speeding past expansive mango plantations. The humidity was stifling, the air heavy and viscous and despite the easy flat roads and cloudy skies I was dripping with sweat. When the sun burst out the Coke’s flowed freely as it was borderline impossible to pass up a shady shop front.
We spent a night camping in front of a church in a village just off the main road, and I’m sure became the first tourist of any sort to drop in. We attracted a hoard of children captivated by out every move and object pulled from a pannier bag. Between cooking and setting up camp there was much by the way of ooghing and aaghing. While eating some recovery peanut butter as I boiled water the kids took a keen interest in the jar. I assumed the excitement was because I was eating it neat, and told them this was the number one cyclist food. Well, I pointed with my spoon and said ‘numero uno’. This seemed to relieve some of excitement. Prepping breakfast the next morning Javi was eavesdropping on a conversation between two elder men, one setting up his shop and the other sweeping around the square. The sweeper was explaining in some detail how we had cups that could be folded flat and stoves that can cook an entire meal from a little seperate bottle, all details that the kids reported back home. I found it amusing that we were quite literally the talk of the town. A fat kid was also back early on and was trying his luck at getting some ‘numero uno’ from me. Then only did I realize he’d in all likelihood never seen peanut butter before, and now thought it was called number one. I relinquished the near empty jar, and apologise to all future cyclist that might stumble into the village and be harassed for ‘numero uno’.
We spent a couple of nights on various beaches as we swung back to the Pacific to San Blas, picking up Jessica along the way. She’d stayed in Baja to do some diving further down the coast and then changed her plans and decided to reunite with us and to keep riding to Guadalajara before having to head back to Canada for the winter skiing seasong. In San Blas we also ran into Chris and Patricia, the French couple. Seemed touring cyclists had a habit of gravitating towards one another.
Camping on the beach in Chacala, it was so hot that a post supper night swim seemed the only way to cool down. This turned into one of my more memorable body surfing experience as conditions were just about perfect, and wave after wave was effortlessly surfed to the beach. It ended in a bit of a raucous fashion as I decided, purely due to practical reasons, I’d swim in my birthday suit. Having only one other pair of non cycling shorts it was a simple choice of swimming naked or sleeping naked. Getting out of the sea I lost my bearings a bit and a good number of restaurant guests were staring in disbelief at this naked yeti like figure running up and down the beach looking for the spot where he’d left his towel.
The next day Rob made the call that he’s bee-lining it to Mexico City, and peeled off the group. That left me riding with Javi and Jess as the French couple settled into their more consistent rhythm, slower but much steadier. By Puerto Vallarta I’d reached the end of my tether with regards to sloshing around at night in a pool of sweat in my tent and a haze of mosquitos outside. Big mountains were conveniently at hand to the east and through which, I’d spied on Google Maps, snaked a small track that just begged to be explored. Javi and Jess decided likewise to swing inland, but along the safer tar road option. After a blissful night under a fan of a Warm Shower host we went our seperate ways, and for the first time in close to 2000km I was riding solo. In fact, since entering Mexico I’m sure this was no more than my 6th or 7th day by myself, so I had a lot of sobering thoughts as I snaked my way accross the city to the start of the track.
Incidentally, Puerto Vallarta is one of the main destinations of Canadians and north western Americans escaping the delightful northern winter. Although still in the very early days of the seasonal migration, lots of elder white faces filled the streets close to the enormous skyscraper blocks of holiday apartments and hotels. And the clusters of American fastfood outlets and other overbearing stores essential to the comfort driven life were clear signs of this weird economy. But I had bigger things to worry about as the track, after a brief civil introduction of flat gradients, rapidly shot up and the surface condition deteriorated at a matching rate. With the city still looming large behind me the going became a full out slog. And so it remained for a very very long time. There was one brief coke stop early on, and around lunchtime I sighted another small store. I was quickly informed this was the last bit of civilisation for the next 6 hours, if going by 4×4. The guestimate was 2 days for a bike. As such I talked my way into a more substantial lunch, during which 3 random guys arrived and tried their level best to get me to do some coke with them. As in the Colombian variety. I scoffed down the meal in full damage control mode to limit the amount of beers I was forced to drink with them. And then made a very hasty escape.
I’d been worried about them setting off after me, having showed me their stash of drugs and where they were hiding it. Thankfully the road was partially washed away within a couple of kilometers, making it impassable for a car. Relief. Officially the road had now upgraded to a track, and I had it all to myself.
More long hours passed confined only to my easiest 3 gears as I snaked mainly up and a little forward. I came to realize that I was in virgin territory, figuratively speaking, as all previous records and conceptions I had of climbing toppled and got replaced with this new reality. I topped out at 1400m (having started out at sea level) in the late afternoon, then unexpectedly and reluctantly dropped 500m into a large valley.
Feeling a but frustrated at my loss of hardwon altitude I thought I might call it a day and camp by the river loudly gushing in the bottom of the valley. However as soon as I became stationery endless swarms of gnats decided to commit suicide by drowning themselves in the sweat on my face. Thoughts of camping disappeared in an instant as I realised I’d have to escape the buggy torment by getting up and away from the river, meaning wading accross a flooded stretch of concrete. The water was swifter than expected and a critical glance at the submerged section showed I large washed out hole that could have been catastrophic had the clear water not revealed it’s presence.
Dropping my gear I precariously set out on an explorative wade of the river. The only way to deal with the powerful current was to stand facing upstream and sidestepping my way accross, carefully shifting my weight from one foot to the other and not allowing too much water to pass under the weightless foot. The overactive risk assesing part of my brain realized there were easy pickings at hand, and sprang into action pointing out all the potential hazards and their dire consequences. It was pretty hard to shout it down, as a single misstep or slightest of stumble will result in more than just a wet bum. The remoteness of the place also suddenly seemed as less of a virtue. But as I crossed the deepest midsection of the river these thoughts were silenced, as I knew with sufficient patience and care I’d be able to ferry all my stuff across. I headed back and 2 more crossing later I was glad to have all my stuff over safe and dry and able to escape the gnats. The excitement and relief seemed to have rejuvenated my legs, and I quickly made inroads into recovering the lost altitude. Some occupied houses started to appear, and I noted car tracks on the road. With the impassable river behind me, this meant the road ahead must be drivable, thus negating the niggling worry of the road ahead continuing to deteriorate before terminating in a dead end. After some luckless attempts I found I decent camp spot and was well pleased to see that I’d recovered all the lost altitude and was back at 1400m.
The next moring I woke to beautiful wooded mountain views and a muscle hangover worse than expected. Back on the bike it was a slow start, but with the relentless gradients persisting there was no place to hide. I just had to keep on keeping on. At 1820m the climb topped out, and I started to drop into the noticeably drier leeward side of the mountains. The pine forest gave way to pastures and then a patchwork of maizefields. The hard slog wasn’t over yet as I listlessly crawled over the hills with heavy, unresponsive legs – the big mountains had been conquered but it felt as these smaller testers were more threatening to my resolve. There might be a life lesson in that…
After wading one more sluggish but much deeper river the countryside opened up and it was a flat and thoroughly enjoyable cruise to the tar road and then into Mascota. I was thoroughly spent as I reached town in the early afternoon and had long decided to stop at the first opportunity for a reward of the edible kind. And whom other than Jessica and Javier did I find as I pulled over. They had also endured a though day and a half in the mountains, and we took turns to relate warstories from the time we left Puerto Vallarta, which now felt like a distant memory. The conversation progressed from the past to the future and they were keen to push on as there was still plenty of daylight to burn. I was way less motivated, but facing the hassle filled prospect of finding a place to camp in town I decided to also move on. To the town square. With free wifi. Here I discovered a Warm Shower host had accepted my request and after some arrangements to include Jess and Javi we set out to the lovely countryside cottage of Mary, a very interesting US born woman with a long history of living a raising her children in Mexico and living across the world.
She greeted us with freshly baked wholewheat bread, which I smothered with real butter. The bread was no match and easily defeated by 3 constantly hungry cyclists. What a treat it was. A swim and a wash in the crisp water of the nearby lake rejuvenated me, but I was still aware of the physical toll of the mountains. As such I easily persuaded myself to take a restday in the comfort of Mary’s cottage. Javi and Jess were under a bit of time pressure as Jess had a plane to catch, so it wasn’t an option for them. They treated us all to a moreish spaghetti carbonara for supper and a relaxing evening followed.
The restday was spent helping Mary with some DIY chores, planning a route ahead and exploring a bit of Mascota. And giving my weary legs a well deserved break. It was a good reminder that there was no need to rush things or make life any more difficult than what it needs to be.
Looking back I’d escaped the heat of the coast, and in doing so conquered the biggest climb of my biking life. Although by no means a walk in the park, the bar of whats possible on a cumbersome laden bike was raised numerous notches. It was a great confidence booster and I looked forward to taking on even bigger challenges in the future. Savouring this small victory it was impossible to deny that life was plenty good.