To avoid any excess anxiety expressed by those reading my blog, I have added a “Current location” widget at the top of the sidebar to let you know roughly where and when I exist. This should help distinguish between the very unlikely event that something bad has occurred causing an inability to post and sheer laziness of word smithing or word smattering, as it may be, on my part. Sorry for any discomfort, anticipation, or other distress caused by my lack of keyboard finger exercises in the last two months. Hopefully this will help alleviate any fears going forward.
After crossing over from La Paz, we spent little time in Mazatlan before continuing on. The town, although interesting, was much larger than any other previously seen in Mexico. Small towns in mainland Mexico are the size of large towns in Baja. The traffic is generally heavier and less flexible. I often find myself comparing the mainland to Baja. These two areas are distinct to me; certainly different chapters. One difference between Baja and the mainland is that you can ride your bike on the toll road. Occasionally, I saw signs saying it was prohibited but never had a problem at the toll booths. The toll roads are greatly preferred due to their width and general lack of traffic, and the surface tends to be better. The roads here also contain new carrion. Bats, tarantulas, armadillos, and many snakes; none suitable for photographic preservation. Sorry kiddos.
Southward, the desert vegetation and scenery persisted. Occasionally we got a small climb or a glimpse of an iguana’s tail as it scurried up and embankment as we approached. Finally near the town of Tepic we found some real hills. The road here also narrowed to a harrowing width and the mainland traffic being less eager to cooperate made for a challenging section. We chose to ride from Tepic to Puerto Vallarta rather than going through Guadalarjara. This is the shorter route and avoids climbing into the mountains. We later found out from another cyclist that this route is not recommended due to the congestion and the serpentine roads. We climbed up from Tepic to, I believe, around 4,000ft. From here we had an excellent downhill to near sea level, 23km. I of course took the opportunity to go as fast as possible, leaning into the curves, gripping my brakes for dear life as corners approached, and attempting to catch up with or sometimes pass other vehicles which I came across. At one point I was riding behind a pickup truck at around 60km / hr when he came to a rather abrupt stop. I barely missed hitting his bumper as passed I him on the right, braking just short of a bus in front of him and keeping my wheels on the little pavement between him and the ditch. A line of cars was stopped to allow an ambulance carrying injured persons from a previous car accident to pass. Closer toward Puerto Vallarta, highway 200 becomes especially narrow and congested. I would suggest that any other cyclist riding this section take the route through Guaralarjara instead.
Puerto Vallarta seemed to be overrun with gringos; it’s usual state I expect. Upon entering town I noticed several young American-looking men; I would guess around 18 years old walking down the sidewalk heading for the beach. Each carried a case of cheap Mexican beer on their shoulder, here for spring break I assume to experience Mexico. Half a kilometer later I saw a young woman, also presumably American, sitting on the side of the road, her head cradled in her hands as if it was made of stone. A large neon colored plastic vessel, typically filled with a mixture of cheap booze and something fruity, sitting a foot away. Welcome to Puerto Vallarta. I find that I really enjoy the open spaces of Mexico, the mountain vistas, the beach sunsets, but the city is not my favorite. True, it affords easy learning opportunities about the culture and history of the people, but it’s not necessarily for me. Small towns have offered a more interesting cultural education through interpersonal communication than any of the large cities.
Puerto Vallarta marked the beginning of a change in vegetation from desert to a more tropical landscape. Southward, the states rolled by, adding more and more palm trees day by day. This being the end of the dry season, things look a little brown when looking inland from the coast. The greenery is largely limited to the coastline and huge valley’s of banana plantations, a coconut palm planted every 40 feet or so, presumably for shade.
The state of Michoacan is known for it’s beauty and also, as we found out, for it’s beaches. Tearing your Lonely Planet in two to save weight is a great idea, but it can also be a determent if you decide you needed something in the front of the book, such as the holiday calendar. There are two very large holidays in Mexico: Christmas and Semana Santa. Semana Santa is not a week after Christmas celebrating the visit of the jolly old fellow in the red suit; it is easter. Apparently during this week, which is two weeks in reality, everyone gets vacation and heads to the beach. This doubles or triples the hotel rate, packs every palapa in sight with tents, and loads the roads with overloaded minivans filled with Great Grandma to babe. We had a difficult time finding a space to camp or a hotel during this period. Some hotels we came across were charging as much as $80.00 per night. Cabanas were sometimes available; a small structure most would call a “shack” sometimes including a restroom and usually somewhat accessible to the night air and insects.
While in Baja, camping was very easy. One simply had to look for a spot beside the road where you could hide a tent. Here it’s much more populated, much of the territory is farmland, and it’s much much hotter. On the up side the hotels are much cheaper. Sometimes you can find a hotel for as little as $9.00 / night. A general guideline is $25.00 – $30.00 will get you a room you can feel comfortable in. When inspecting a hotel I have learned to look for several amenities.
First, some modicum of security is required. Typically the inspection starts with verifying there is in fact a door to the dwelling, and hopefully a lock. Questions should be asked about obtaining a key (llave) to make sure they are willing to part with it. Large holes through the door which can be used to unlock it from the outside are unacceptable.
Second, a bathroom should be present. Being a gringo in Mexico means you may need to use a restroom quickly, without going down the hall and waiting for your neighbor to finish reading the paper. In addition, the bathroom should be checked for a sewer gas smell. This seems to be a bigger issue on the downstairs rooms than upstairs. The showers are typically cold water only when you want hot, and for some reason only warm when you are dying of heat. One shower, which I dubbed the execution shower, had an inline heater installed in the shower head. Live electrical wires were twisted and quickly taped just inches above the head of the unfortunate bano inmate.
Third, a cursory bug check is made. On one occasion, an ant’s nest decided that wherever they used to live wasn’t as good as the moulding in the bathroom and they moved in. Cleaning up hundreds of ants can be a bit of a chore but it should be noted that liberally squirting a perimeter of jungle juice (98% deet) around their entrance to the domicile is affective in stemming the tide of invaders. The subsequent traffic jam can be cleaned up with a wet towel. In another room a cockroach had taken up residence in the bathroom sink. He would peek his feelers out of the drain while you brushed your teeth; apparently anticipating the minty freshness of a plaque free carapace.
Fourth, if you are in a hot climate AC might be necessary. One day while riding, my key chain thermometer read 102F. Heat exhaustion is a constant concern. I have had countless dehydration headaches and am just hoping my kidneys aren’t picking up rock collecting as a hobby. I recently read some unreferenced articles that stated that you can sweat as much as one liter per hour. They also stated that you can absorb only about one liter per hour. This doesn’t leave much else to help cool off. One day, I felt extremely exhausted from the heat and would have paid just about anything for a hotel with AC. Unfortunately, one was not available. I ended up spending around two hours in the shower cooling off that night. Another method that works well wiping cool water on your appendages occasionally using a wet handkerchief. Keep a pan of fresh water next to the bed so you can refresh your hanky when it gets warm or drys out. May is end of the dry season and the hottest month in some of the southern Mexican states. Riding is really only possible in the morning or the afternoon. On the coast, we typically get up around 5:30AM and ride from 7AM to 12PM at the latest. Anything more than this is really asking for trouble.
Fifth, a downstairs (abajo) room is preferred to upstairs (arriba) because of a lot of heavy (pesado) belongings. I have learned that carrying a fully loaded bicycle up a flight(s) of stairs is possible. It’s fairly easily done by standing on the drive side and picking up the rear of the rig by the non-drive side chainstay, while picking up the front end with your right hand from right side of your handlebar drop. This, surprisingly, does make a difference in keeping your upper body in shape when using only your legs all day and also saves time.
One morning, feeling sluggish as usual, I left a little after Amy. I packed up my belongings; each fitting into it’s prescribed location like a nicely played game of tetris but luckily without anything disappearing. I rode lazily away from the beach hotel, watching the sunrise colors fade from the sky into the dull blue of day. I came upon Amy on the side of the road with a couple of bystanders lingering about. She had a gash in her elbow, a scraped knee, and a large patch of road rash on her shoulder. Her hip was badly bruised from a fall to the pavement and her bike lay next to the road, a bit twisted and scraped. Some dogs looked toward her from a field nearby. A large group of them, numbering around ten, had seen her ride by and given chase. Now, any cyclist on tour has had to deal with dogs but seldom a pack of them. They had run along side, threatening to nip at heel and leg until one of them decided he was going to bite some piece of her front bag. He lunged at the front wheel, washing out the front tire and causing the incident. The dogs instantly scattered as some locals came running, one of them throwing rocks at these roving canines in disgust of their actions.
Dogs are easily the cause of more scares on the bike than any other single category. My brain by now should be pickled with adrenaline from numerous daily occurrences. The tear off after you, baring teeth and nipping at heels. I have found that most dogs can run only ~18MPH so if you are on the flat you can use the flight response to get away from them. If you spit in their face it will cause them to stutter, a water bottle emptied on their head while make them stop, and yelling will do absolutely nothing. They will give chase as if you are a demon sent from the underworld to destroy all life on Earth. If you are on foot, they usually couldn’t care less. If you have time to dismount they will be disarmed; generally looking astounded as if you have transformed into an entirely different creature. It’s interesting that if you have a rock and make a throwing motion or pick up a stick they take notice; as if these actions are not unknown to them. I typically do nothing other than wait for them to get within range of a kick to the face. These creatures are let to roam in Mexico. They will wait by your dinner table for scraps and sometimes defend their territory even if you are sans bicycle. I must admit I am developing an unhealthy disdain for them. Most of these dogs have and have never had an owner. They procreate wildly and subside on the refuse of man. These vermin are the rats of Mexico and I often wonder about their usefulness to the food chain and their evolutionary significance. That’s probably enough said about that without having to moderate the impending comments.
Amy’s bike was easily mended with supplies on hand, some adjustments and everything was back to normal. The body on the other hand took a little more time. We took a camioneta, a pickup with benches in the back, to the town of Marquelia. We stayed there for a while, letting injuries heal to the point where she could walk again and eventually ride. A hip injury of this type can be very painful and take quite a while to mend. I didn’t mention it at the time, to protect myself from the excitable, but I also had a similar accident where I injured my hip. I had the same matching scuff on the knee, the gash on the elbow, and a tear in the shoulder of my jacket where I would have had road rash. It was during the first week in southern Washington, and luckily I had a week and a half off after that. It has been around five months since that day and it still hurts to the touch.
I spent my time exploring the town, making friends, eating way too many pastries, and sampled an iguana tamale. I later found out iguana is being over hunted and might not be environmentally conscious to eat. One restaurant owner, Claudia, asked me one day to write down some translations for some items she cooked. I talked with her a little bit and decided to make her a menu instead with both English and Spanish. I had some extra time so I printed up a few, and ended up getting some free meals out of the deal. Another restaurant owner I had become acquainted with saw me in the internet cafe printing out the newly minted gastronomicon for Claudia’s restaurant, Leche y Miel, and asked me to simply write down the translations for his menu as well. I was happy to. I dealt with some printer issues in the internet cafe and got to know the owner a little. She was excited to learn that I had some computer skills and asked if I could teach her and her husband how to use their scanner and edit images. I obliged; it was the least I could do after “borrowing” WiFi for three weeks by writing down the WEP key from the sticker on their wireless router. The first document they wanted to edit was some sort of birth certificate. I gave instructions in Spanish as I showed them how to scan documents, edit out numbers, and cut and paste new digits from the same document to avoid background discrepancies. The next document they needed edited was a driver’s license. This was a little more difficult as the background contained a watermark that had to be reconstructed pixel by pixel before pasting the new digits. Not too complicated, and I hope the notes they took allowed them to continue whatever business they are in. Apparently a lot of people need those two documents edited for some reason. I didn’t ask why but I suspected some sort of voter fraud and or traffic violation avoidance. Who am I to judge?
The coast of Mexico is a different experience from the inland sections of Baja or the coast of the US. Although varied in some ways I actually found that eventually I got a little bored of the picturesque honey colored sand beaches with the quintessential topical aqua blue water. I’m sure some of you coming out of the Seattle winter could slap me for that statement but it’s true. So, we decided to do some more tourist activities and to turn inland to see some ruins. Touring Baja, I really felt that I got to know the landscape, the people to an extent, and the area. I didn’t feel the same about mainland Mexico and for this reason have decided to spend some extra time touring around Oaxaca and Chiapas before heading into Guatemala. The previous plan touring Yucatan is out due to time constraints.
We were able to visit a sea turtle sanctuary to watch baby turtles dig their way out of the sand. These organizations collect eggs from the beach to raise them in a sheltered environment before releasing them into the surf. They were kind enough to allow us to release a few into the ocean, little leathery creatures pre-programmed for getting into the water and swimming away. These little tortugas made their way into the waves, being pushed back up the beach countless times before finally being washed into the whitewater.
Another attraction was a crocodile reserve. Crocodiles are raised in a sheltered environment to keep predators from destroying them at a young age. Unfortunately the tour was not in English but we were able to get within inches of the crocs, just on the other side of a chain link fence. Had I decided I no longer wanted some of my fingers, I’m sure I could have easily left some there. The tour was given by a young boy. Several others were about cleaning the grounds, no adults in sight.
On a snorkeling excursion we were fortunate enough to see fisherman pull in a large tuna, see large sailfish jump fully from the water, get within ten feet of a very large whale shark, and see several large sea turtles swimming in the open ocean. Unfortunately, we were not able so snorkel. Each beach we visited was infested with huge clouds of small stinging jellyfish, an artifact of days of onshore winds. At one point the boat stopped to allow us to go “cliff diving”. Apparently six feet is a cliff in Mexico and I declined to swim the 20 yards to the rock. Several German tourists on board literally jumped at the opportunity, each returning covered with painful, red, jelly stings.
The first few days of the route to Oaxaca City led up eastward on highway 175 up over the Sierra Madre mountains. We expected a couple days of climbing to reach the highest point before descending into the Valle Centrales and ultimately arriving at Oaxaca City. What was not expected was encountering most of the 9,000ft climb in a single day. The route from Pochutla afforded amazing views of steep mountain canyons, shrouded in green from redcurrant afternoon storms. The first 4,000ft came in the first 20km, and surprisingly went by without too much trouble. Ridge after ridge passed by, the road sometimes icing the top precariously before glancing up the side of another canyon. Cycling above 6,000ft was a brutal event. The elevation is really a killer when you are hauling a 100lb bicycle. Around kilometer 35, I stopped for my second lunch. I ate three large quesadillas, a large bowl of beans, and drank a liter of water. A half hour after finishing the meal, I awoke with my head on the lunch table. Luckily I had moved the food out of the way prior to zonking out; thus avoiding any propagation of messy gringo stereotypes. The senora moved around the taqueria as if she had not noticed me slumbering uncontrollably. I paid my bill and headed off. Shortly thereafter I started hearing a frequent thundering from the canyon below. The afternoon clouds were creeping upwards against the mountainside and the thunderclaps seemed to be moving closer towards me than I was climbing away from them. Not fully understanding the dynamics of lightning on a slope with a ledge, the highway, I decided to get as far above them as possible as quickly as possible. Eventually I met clouds from above, strangely dropping straight down across the road; the densest looking fog I’ve ever seen. I was able to see small wisps of it within inches of my face. It moved like stage fog, except holding a wet chill, soaking my already sweaty clothes. My pace slowed as my heart raced and I gave up worrying about electrocution. I was exhausted; just getting back into shape from my time on the bench in Marquelia and this elevation was just too much. I made it to within seven kilometers of the town, an elevation of 7,800ft, 1,200ft short of the 9,000ft climax. I could not go on. Each breath seemed useless, paining my lungs when I breathed deeply. Getting close to dark, I hitched a lift with a van on it’s way to Oaxaca. I think the driver saw the look on my face and was compelled to stop. This was the hardest day of riding I have ever had. When he dropped me off at the top I had nothing left. I wept. It was the best hill of my life.
I spent a couple days recovering from my exhaustion on the ridge top. I took therapeutic four-wheeler excursion; whipping through the high pine forests at 8,000ft; just me and a guide. I think he took me on a special route since I can’t imagine aunties and uncles going up these slopes which I hoped I would not tip over backwards on. Unlike the last time I was on a four-wheeler I avoided breaking any limbs.
Eventually, we headed down into the Valle Centrales towards Oaxaca. The valley floor bottomed out at around 4,500ft. The air here feels like syrup compared to the thin watery gas of the ridge before dropping in. This high plain is a bit lumpy, a pancake just before the bubbles pop and it’s ready to flip. Patchworks of farm after farm, culturing sustenance in the blood orange soil.
I am now in Oaxaca city, in the center of the Valle Centrales. Having arrived this morning I’m catching up on the blog; yeah, yeah, I know; and considering a mountain bike excursion, a cooking class, and some gallery touring.