Mexico Pt 5 – Mexico City to Guatemala

Oaxaca, the capital city of the province of the same name was sold to me as the next city to shoot towards, 500km south east. It was only while leaving Mexico City that the real success of the ride into town dawned on me. For many kilometers I was fighting for space along a busy 3 lane shoulderless highway. At times the proximity of a barrier cruelly forced me well into the lane shared with trucks and busses, and all the time slowly going up an endless climb. It was a scary combination, but as my nerves frayed down to the last fiber the road opened up and I found sanctuary on a wide shoulder.

Once over the mountains hemming in the south of the city it was a long downhill followed by flats and the kilometers came easily, with the day ending at 140km. In the late afternoon I started to accept that I’ll have to find accommodation in my own, there is no Javier to charm us into a secure camping spot. Twice I made frustrated enquiries, but to be honest there is no telling what I actually said and how it was interpreted. The silent mountains emerged as a much more appealing option and I left the village looking for a viable side road. After a nervous search I happened upon a sweet and safe spot and so rekindled my love of solo wild camping which I continued to enjoy throughout southern Mexico.

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Another great spot of wild camping. Who needs Spanish with spots like these on offer
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The biggest cactus-tree I've ever seen
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Getting lost and finding myself on the back roads
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The ever present maize and wheat fields

The following days were spent in endless rolling mountains, much drier than anything since Baja. I tried a couple of dusty back roads but eventually the inaccessible mountains funneled me back to the main road where I was happy to be making progress.

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Clear skies and a wide shoulder. Rolling hills to keep me honest.
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A massive bulk of a Cathedral rising from one of the planes between the valleys. Doubt the entire population of it's host village could fill it halfway though.

Oaxaca was a another urban highlight, aided by having wonderful hosts in Jason and his wife Diane. A afternoon visit to the the St Alban ruins perched on a mountain overlooking the city added to the magic of Oaxaca:

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In Mexico things are often described virtuously as ‘traditional’ when refered to as having Native American roots and  it felt as if the national identity had an awkwark time accommodating it’s pre and post Hispanic heritage, the old and new, into one self. Oaxaca and the further southern state of Chiapas were often described as very ‘traditional’, but in reality it seemed more synonymous with being poorer and undeveloped. But then again, in this modern age with it’s bewildering rate of change, what country or institution, geez, even family and individual isn’t deeply confronted with integrating and incorporating the past into the future. But I digress…

Oaxaca proudly displayed it’s rich cultural or ‘traditional’ history in the form of craft and clothing shops, restaurants and galleries that embraces both the past and present. It’s an easy place to like, authentic and intimate, yet humble in it’s opinion of itself. Even a savage one day stomach bug couldn’t dent my favourable impression of the place.

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Charming Oaxaca at dusk
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Sampling the traditional delicacies

Heading futher south I was beginning to feel like I was never going to get out of Mexico. The 2 month mark had flown past, and the border was nowhere in sight. Keeping in mind I did a greater distance in the US in a month and a week, so I was beginning to feel restless, the well acquainted destroyer of inner tranquility.

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The dry Oaxaca mountains
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I marvelled at the inconsistency of Mexican road signs. Distances would typically increase as you get closer to a place. And then you have this, as to say: right turn coming up. Jip, it s a right turn. Jokes, made you look. It's actually combination curves..
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Oaxaca is Mezcal coutry, a drink very similar to tequila but the way the pines, the heart of the agave plant, is cooked is different. For Tequila direct steam ovens are used. For Mezcal the pines are burried and roasted in great fire pits, thus the end result is much smokier than Tequila.
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There were dozens such artisan distilleries next to the road, using the same age old methods of productions
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And the final product in upscale shops
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Colourful grasshopper catching a lift
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Never a great sign for cyclist, a massive wind farm with the turbines facing your direction of travel. Rumour has it that cars get blown off the road here. I went largely unscathed
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Random market shot, alway a good supply of cheap food

And to make things more interesting, I’d committed to another off-route excursion: Head once again over the mountains, mind you the Continental Divide in this case, and visit the jungle shrouded Myan ruins at Palenque.

This side trip allowed a short stayover in San Cristóbal, another ‘traditional’ city perched in the mountains. In getting there I bagged a new record, a single non-stop 2000m high climb, done and dusted in the course of a few hours. I ended up chasing the sun as I neared the top and my the knees were creaking under the strain. Here Oscar and his buddy Paul hosted me for 2 nights, the additional night being to the benefit of my knees of course. The first night was spent watching the Star Wars premier. Random. During the rest day I lazily explored the town, and found a likable, more compact Oaxaca.

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Downtown San Cristóbal
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Tamales, an Oaxaca favourite

That night a cold rain set in and continued into the morning. I only ended up leaving as the skies cleared around lunchtime, and made it about 15km out of town before further rain and icy winds forced me to seek shelter. I ended up camping in the woods for 2 nights as the rain persisted throughout the next day. It was a bit of an experiment, I wanted to find out what it felt like being holed up an a tent for a day and a half. Well, I had plenty of decent food, water and a charged Kindle, so it went rather cosy with none of the cabin fever I expected to get.

I’d once again spied a max zoom track through the mountains and set out the next day under still heavy skies. It was wonderful pure mountain riding, into the heart of rural Chiapas. I camped at the dramatic Agua Azul waterfalls, but due to the heavy rains they were not as mineral blue as their name suggests, but had a good swim none the less. Palenque, reached the following day after a crazy long downhill, was interesting, with a jungle setting straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. But all in all the rewarding experience of cycling a proper mountain section felt more rewarding than the singular sights along the way that motivated the trip.

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My max zoom track and the weather just just toeing the line to allow a great ride
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The not quite azul Agua Azul falls. Still pretty impressive
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Traditional dresses hand made in shops next to the road
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The deep valleys of Chiapas

Palenque in all it’s jungle glory:

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I bussed back half the way I came, a compromise I’d negotiated with myself before setting out on this side leg, thus avoiding a massive climb back up the Continental Divide. Having done it once was enough for me. Finally I was on the stretch to the border, but had to contend with another 2 unexpectedly hard days  of climbing before the run to the border.

On Christmas Eve, my last night in Mexico, I was struggling for many km’s to find a suitable spot for wild camping. I turned off the highway onto a side road for the umpteenth time and came to a very neat setup that I assumed was a cattle stud farm. It had a great grass lawn that was begging to be camped on and a look that said this was a commercial setup, not a family farm overrun with children and all manner of loud domestic animals. I was right, sort of: It was a small dairy farm in the startup phase, and 3 contracted vets ran the show. They happily invited me in and we ended up having a bit of a party with more of their friends, plenty of beer and a pork roast done for the occasion. I was quite happy to have some good company during a time of year when one is more inclined to miss distant lived ones. Or so I’ve been told… grappie

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Getting milked on Christmas day

And so it came to be that I said Adios! to Mexico on Christmas day. It had been a long stay, full of a wide spectrum of expectation defying experiences. It was a wonderful introduction to cycle touring proper, but most importantly I’d survived with both my kidneys in tact. In your face, suurtiet Yanks!

Crossing the border meant officially ticking of North America as done, with the patchwork of small Central American countries lying ahead. There were some fearsome sounding and badly reputed places ahead, like El Salvador and Honduras. But before I started fearing for my kidneys all over again, I was immensely grateful for the continental milestone passed and hugely excited about new experiences that awaited accross the border. If past experience was a good predictor of future experience, life in the bike promised to stay being mighty fine indeed.

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