Goodbye Mexico – Hola Guatemala

Leaving Oaxaca and arriving in Chiapas meant one thing – we were back in the hills again. The best thing about being in the hills was that it was cooler and there was always a view – something you don’t always get on the flat. That makes the sweat and energy spent getting to the top of the hill all the more worth it.

We stayed a couple of days in Tuxtla Gutierrez – a seething mass of humanity which didn’t have much to offer other than really cheap street food. Our hotel had a lovely garden and we used our time there to catch up on some rest. Right on the fringe of Tuxtla is Cańon Del Sumidero a 900m deep canyon. First we biked to the view-points on the top of the rim – an 850m climb. At the top we ran into a group of what looked like ‘bad ass’ motor bikers. They impressed me with their shiny Harley ‘Hogs’ and I offered to swap my bike for one of theirs which they politely declined (I wonder why)?? They looked like a really rough bunch, but were friendly and in awe at how far we had come on our ‘one human’ powered bikes.

The views from the top of the canyon were awesome, but I’d heard the boat ride up the canyon was well worth doing. Tony was a bit more skeptical, but we decided to go anyway. It turned out to be one of the best ‘touristy’ things we have ever done. We saw a lot of wild life including crocodiles, monkeys, many different birds and lots of cool rocks (not quite wildlife but still cool). The commentary from our driver was entirely in Spanish, but we picked up enough to have an idea what was being talked about and he appeared to be very enthusiastic.

After the gorge there was a big hill climbing day to San Christobel de las Casas – all in all 2300m of altitude gain. The road was a really good gradient and the metres clicked by relatively easily. The biggest thing we noticed along the route was the women from the villages collecting wood and going about their daily business still wore traditional Maya dress. They appeared to be hard doers up here, cropping on the sides of steep hills, growing what looked like passion fruit and chopping and carting lots of wood. Everything is done by hand and there were no fatties to be seen up here.

San Christobel was touristy, but had a really nice laid back feel to it – or maybe that was the hostel we stayed at? Each time we walked in the door our nostrils were assaulted by the strong smell of dope being smoked just outside our room. We spent a couple of days here and got out on our unloaded bikes to have a look around the area.

First we went to a town called San Juan Chamula where we had heard there was a really cool church to visit. The interesting thing about the church was that it combined Christianity with some local Maya traditions like sacrificing chickens. We were in luck (or not depending on your point of view). We paid our MX25 each to enter and were greeted by thousands of candles lit around the edges of the church. The floor was covered in pine needles and there were lots of statues of various saints aligning the sides of the church. This is a busy tourist destination which created a really strange contrast – tourists walking through the church looking around and locals deep in worship sharing the same space. The locals didn’t seem to mind and I witnessed one local family bless some members of the family by waiving a live chicken through the candle smoke then over them, before the chicken was deftly dispatched by another family member who broke its neck. I guess they will be having blessed chicken for dinner that night. This all made me feel a little uncomfortable. I felt like I was intruding in their private worship and for me it was time to leave.

We then biked to Acrotete which is where a river runs through a limestone cave. This was more like the type of attraction that we like. It was a beautiful area and the walk through the cave was very cool. We spent a good couple of hours there exploring.

After leaving San Christobel we travelled to Cascada El Chiflon. The ride to the falls involved an 1800m descent which made for a relatively easy day. The falls were spectacular and we got to camp right next to this beautiful river.

In Central America – what goes down must go back up and the next day we had a 1000m climb back up into the hills. We rode the MEX226 which I dubbed the ‘Road of discarded dirty nappies’ due to the filthy rubbish that was discarded on the side of the road (including bags and bags of soiled nappies). To add insult to injury we also battled a stinking head wind. We didn’t reach our destination of Lagunas De Montebello until 7.30pm when it was well dark. Fortunately we arranged to camp near the Maya ruins of Chinkultic at a really nice location next to a lake. The next day we checked out the ruins, then did a ride around the lakes in Laguna De Montebello before spending our last night in Mexico camped by a lake in the town of Tziscao. There we had a small celebration (any excuse to drink beer) before venturing into Guatemala the following day.

So we’ve spent a total of 3 1/2 months in Mexico and it’s been really good to us. The people have been great and the scenery amazing and diverse. We’d highly recommend it as a destination.

Where have we been:

Descending into the Furnace of Hell…Or is that Paradise

As we sit here on the stunning beach of Zipolite with the temperature hovering around 35C (for you North American folk that’s 95F) we wonder if it’s paradise or hell. Certainly all the naked over bronzed bodies walking past think it’s paradise. It turns out that the only place on the map that showed camping is also the only legal nudist beach in Mexico. But it was a nice place so we stayed and enjoyed the chilled atmosphere, naked hippies aside. And before you ask, we didn’t feel the urge to ditch our kit and join the frisbee fun on the beach.

Playa Zipolite. Nudists and hippies galore. But a very relaxing place for a day off.

So it turns out that riding on the blacktop in 35deg and high humidity over rolling hills just isn’t much fun. By 11am our water resembles warm tea, our sweat is pooling on the ground at every stop. By 3pm we’ve well and truely had enough but it’s another hour or two before we will likely find a campsite so onward we go. And then to make matters worse a beer on arrival just isn’t satisfying as the body just wants cold water. Then you try and sleep but because it’s so bloody hot the dogs have been sleeping all day so stay up all night barking….grrrh.

Are there any advantages to riding in these conditions? Surprisingly there are. The cold showers are actually running about the right temperature. The rivers and ocean is sitting at about 28deg so that’s pretty easy to get into. If we’re lucky enough to find a pool that’s also just the right temperature to frolic in for more than five minutes.

But it’s all come to an end. We don’t have the willpower to carry on so we’re now sitting in a bus station waiting on a bus back into the mountains. This is our first public land based transport of the trip. It feels slightly like we’ve been defeated, but another two days of these temperatures and the hot head wind to get across the flatlands before we start climbing into the mountains, which aren’t actually that high, just doesn’t seem worth the effort. We did try though, riding from Salina Cruz this morning, but stopped at Juchitan de Zaragoza after overheating once again.

But I get ahead of myself. This week started with a few days off in Oaxaca. Apparently this city was a must visit but aside from the stunning cathedral and some nice plaza’s it didn’t seam to have to much to offer. It was a good recovery from the never ending climbing to get here. Plus we got to meet up with Sophie and Chris again. They are another couple of cyclists we first met in St George, Utah. Funny how you keep bumping into the same people.

Oaxaca Cathedral. The most ornate one we’ve seen so far.

Actually I’m probably being a bit unfair. There were the nightly concerts in the plaza and the odd street parade to keep things interesting.

Outside the city was a different story. The surrounding villages are famous for their crafts and culture. Plus there’s a stunning area of silica terraces and petrified waterfalls which we just had to go and see. Camping there was definitely a highlight, especially when you have the place to yourself as the sun rises.

Silica terraces, pools and waterfalls of Hierve el Agua.

The bikes are getting tired though and on the way to these pools my hydraulic brake hose fails. 38000km of rubbing and it finally rubbed a hole through it so we returned to Oaxaca the following day to get this sorted. But that’s not all bad because it meant we could go to the coast and enjoy some beach time. Little did we know it was going to be so bloody hot.

Sugar cane crops outside Oaxaca.

Mechanical’s sorted and we head for the coast. Along the way we discovered a major road being build through the mountains. It looked like the job had been abandoned and left to crumble and be reclaimed by nature. But strangely their was still work being done on some of the planned bridges.

The post apocalyptic highway

Two days of hills with a final 1800mt decent sees us camping next to the biggest river we’ve seen in months. It was just bliss washing off a couple of days worth of grime in its tepid waters.

Rio Colotepec. So welcome after a hot day in the hills.

Colotepec village. This old mission building is definitely being held up by the trees.

The next day we were intending on camping on the beach and watching the turtles nesting the following day. But we didn’t quite get our timing right and the turtles had done their thing and left already. Hence we got to enjoy Zipolite instead.

The only turtle we saw. Some just don’t make it.

This coast has some amazing surf beaches which seem to attract their fair share of backpackers. There’s a feel that if you arrive and surfings your thing your going to find it hard to leave. We saw this when we stopped at Barra de la Cruz. This little village just off the highway has a great point break and has embraced the backpacker market with cabins and camping areas popping up in people’s banana plantations. The camp we stayed in had a few young backpackers who arrived, decided to hired surfboards and learn to surf and a month later they are still there. What a great lifestyle. Kind of similar to ours really.

There’s probably a bit of negativity in this update but it’s a bit hard to be to positive and happy after seeing the news from back home. It feels like New Zealand has been betrayed and has lost its innocence. So we’re both feeling a bit down today after trying to process these events. It certainly makes you reflect on what’s going on in the world and how some people’s minds are just so unhinged. Kia Kaha NZ.

Where we’ve been this week.

The ride from Mexico City to Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaka).

I think everyone has been thinking about something or someone and next thing you know that thing happens or you bump into that person. I was riding along thinking that in more than 20,000 kms of riding we had not come across a road accident. That was about to change around 200 kms south of Mexico City. I had pulled off the road on a hill under a tree to get a decent drink as it was bloody hot (around 35-36 degrees and I was really feeling the heat). Next thing I hear the squealing of tyres and look to my left to see the rear side of a van (one of the Micro buses they use here to ferry people from one town to another) miss my back wheel by about a metre. I watched as if in slow motion wondering if the driver was going to recover the skid. He didn’t and the van crashed into the bank on the opposite side of the road 20m from where I was standing.

There were three men in the van including the driver and I would bet that none of them were wearing seatbelts. They all managed to walk out of the van, only one of them was complaining of bumping his head. I worried for a moment that the driver would somehow blame me for the crash but he didn’t. Other vehicles arrived and the driver quickly asked for other people to help him push the van back out onto the road. This signalled my time to make a discreet exit and I quietly cycled up the road to meet Tony. I did a little research and surprisingly found out that Mexico’s death rate on the road is 12.3 per 100,000 people (compared to New Zealand’s 8.5 and USA 10.9). This surprises me because hardly anyone wears safety belts / helmets here, the roads aren’t as good (some are downright rough) and some (most) of the vehicles are falling apart. Still, my limited observation of driving habits have shown Mexican drivers drive slower than in other countries and are generally very patient and courteous. This may be the mitigating factor for their road toll. Interesting enough Mexico’s murder rate is higher – but I digress.

The absence of cars is why we ride roads like this…

The route we picked involved plenty of big hills along its 738km length – this was not going to be a walk in the park! The closer we got to Oaxaca the more prevalent and steep the hills became. Our estimate of arriving in 7 days averaging about 100kms a day was ambitious and in reality it took us 10 days to ride the entire route. But the route delivered great scenery, interesting people and a challenge for both of us. Of the several challenges (apart from the terrain) was the heat. It got seriously hot – riding in the mid 30’s during the day. It became a relief to get above 2400m in height and get some reprieve from the heat. Out of the 9 nights on the road we camped for 8 of them staying in some of the nicest camp spots we had so far in Mexico.

The pick of our camp spots a spectacular gorge near the town of Santo Domingo Tonalta.

View down the gorge from our camp site Santo Domingo Tonalta.

San Jorge Nuchita cathedral.

One of the road hazards over here. A bull with his harem of cows. Luckily these bulls are really placid and don’t pose any problems for passing cyclists.

Locals moving their stock to new grazing.

And here’s some of the roads we travelled…

There were some areas where locals weren’t as friendly as usual. Over a period of two days we were approached by locals warning us of the dangers of passing through these parts. They warned us to be careful. One lovely young lady warned us about wild wolf / dogs that lived in the forest and that we needed to be careful when camping. She further stated she had never been camping before in her life and this was a story she had heard. For a couple of days we felt a little uneasy, but was this our skewed perception, or was there any real danger (other than normal danger when travelling)?? Were these people warning us because they were good natured, or did they want to scare us so we would leave? However the good far outweighed the bad and we met some really wonderful people who helped us on the way…

Spot the Giant!

Hugo and his Father-in-law in Yutanduchi de Guerrero.

And to top it all off we met a great group of Mountain Bikers just outside of Oaxaca who were out for a Sunday club ride. They were a great bunch of guys and one girl (who was tiny, but could ride a bike). They brought us all the way into the city. One of them, Rudolfo offered us his house to stay in and we readily accepted. They also gave us good advice about where to get some work done on my bike and where the good bike shops are. Rudolfo spoke very little English and our Spanish is still pretty basic, so our conversations revolved around the words we knew, sign language and a little Google Translate.

Where we have been…

The Contradiction that is Mexico City

Mexico City. The place we never planned on visiting…but are so glad we did.

But before we get into this sprawling mass of humanity that is Mexico City there were some big hills to climb and some very nice smaller towns to explore.

The week started with a 1300mt climb into the cloud and ever increasing cold rain to cross the Sierra Gorda Range. Of course what goes up must come down so down we went for what seemed like hours. Dropping out of the clouds we left behind the forest and fertile farmland and made a sudden return to a desert environment. The contrast was stunningly sudden.

Despite the countryside becoming more intensively occupied and worked we did manage to get off the highway and find a wild camp on a backroad under a bridge. This was to be our last camping opportunity before Mexico City.

The following day we expected dirt roads but instead found ourselves on very quiet pavement, like two cars an hour quiet. That was the first half of the day anyway before being dropped into a fertile basin that just got busier and busier until we reached the tourist town of Bernal. This place was a bit too busy for us but was also a bit of a treat, with all the street vendors selling a whole variety of tasty snacks. We settled for a salad served up on a plate size chip (crisp for you northern hemisphere folk) covered in the obligatory hot sauce.

Bernal has a bit to explore so after hiking our bikes through a goat track to a very expensive (by Mexican standards) eco-camp we set ourselves up for a day off the bikes. Bernal is a rock climbing mecca in these parts and being the weekend the camp was full of young climbers pitting themselves against boulder problems or multi-pitch climbs to the monoliths summit.

The other side of Bernal is the tourist side where weekend tourists flock to see the historic quarter and walk half way up the monolith. Tourism here is helped by Bernal being named one of Mexico’s ‘Pueblo Magico’s’. Literally translated to Magic Town it means Mexicans from all over converge on these places to experience there natural, cultural or historic beauty. Not ideal for a couple of smelly bikepackers that like the quiet side of life but it meant we got to share their beauty.

After a day off and a commitment to get into Mexico City in three days time I was looking forward to a solid day on the bike. The route looked like we could escape the highways for a while at least. But off the highways still went through intensive cropping, grazing and residential areas. Karen didn’t quiet see things the same way and 35km into the day we arrived in Tequisquiapan, another Pueblo Magico that is well known for its wine and cheese culture. Combine that with a relaxed atmosphere around the Plaza and Karen didn’t want to leave. She won and we ended up finding a hotel near the plaza and sampling some of the local cheeses, and maybe a bottle of wine to wash it down.

So this now left us two days to get into the city, still some 215km away. This seems well achievable but there is always the unknown, and city riding tends to be a bit slow so we pushed through until dusk on the first day to leave just 80km on day two. The riding was unremarkable but becoming increasing busy with it feeling like we were in the suburbs about 150km from the city. We managed to avoid the worst of the traffic until we hit the edge of the city proper, some 60km from our destination in the city centre. Being the largest metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere this wasn’t entirely unexpected but the intensity and bustle was still a shock to the system.

For the most part the traffic was orderly and the riding relatively straightforward. The first exception to this rule are the swarms of suburban buses. These are minivans that are on the clock and pay little regard to any other road users, especially a couple of gringos on bikes, stopping wherever and whenever they liked. Once we got past the range of these the city busses took over and cut us, and everyone else off at every opportunity.

One disappointing factor of getting closer to the city was the increase in pollution levels, especially the waterways and waste management. One canal we passed was literally covered in a foot of plastic bottles and rubbish. You couldn’t see what colour the water was but the black water flowing from a nearby factory straight into the canal gave a pretty good indication that it wasn’t pretty. It’s fair to say Mexico has got some way to go to sort their environmental impact.

Our Warmshowers hosts live in the middle of the city, an area known as Centro Histórico, so we took the opportunity to cut off the main road and dive into the back alleys to visit the central plaza before heading to their house. As soon as we left the main road we were surrounded by a teaming mass of humanity who were either selling or buying literally anything and everything. Then there was the street art. Every spare wall was covered in organised graffiti and murals. More were being painted as we passed by. Although our senses were already fizzing from the ride in this was an amazing sight, and one we were going to experience every day for the next week, albeit an unplanned week.

The contrast when entering the plaza was amazing. This central plaza is massive and surrounded by equally historic stone buildings and the Cathedral. The space is so big it actually felt empty…and incredibly impressive.

So we’d organised to stay with Warmshowers hosts Elian and Firman, who had an apartment 500mt from the plaza so off we went to find them. Turns out Elien is Australian but has been in Mexico for 13 years and Firman is born and bred Mexico City. We all immediately got on like old mates and were soon heading out for a beer and a five o’clock lunch. It seems this is the normal time to eat lunch here. Anyway I digress, these two have been amazing to us, especially with what planned on being a two night stay turns into nine, but that’s another story.

So we arrive on Wednesday with plans to leave Friday, which quickly gets moved to Saturday because the city is so intriguing. Elien and Firman are heading off to the Baja on their own biking adventure on Sunday. But things in the bikepacking world never seem to go to plan. On Friday I’m doing some maintenance on Karen’s bike to convert it from a belt drive to a chain drive. This is when I discover the new rear sprocket doesn’t fit the hub. Without getting all technical it turns out the sprocket carrier is now fubar (fucked beyond all recognition) and won’t take the new sprocket. So the belt goes back on but on a ride to a bike shop to replace the bottom bracket Karen discovers that with the slighted pressure this sprocket now just spins on the hub…so she’s going nowhere. And of course this all happens on a Friday afternoon so there’s no chance to get parts in the post until at least Monday. So after some phone calls and emails the parts get in the post from San Francisco Tuesday morning and are here Wednesday afternoon. It’s amazing that same journey, albeit slightly more scenic, took us 91 days.

In the whole scheme of things it could be a lot worse. The bikes ticked over 20,000km on the ride into the city. Some of this 20,000km has been incredibly rough on them. We’re stuck in an amazing city full of diversity, culture and history that only two days just wouldn’t have done justice. And to top it all off Elien and Firman are happy for us to stay on at their apartment while they are away, plus we get to hang out with their dog and cat.

Plus we got an early, or is that late, Christmas present. On the way down from San Diego we’d ordered yet more bike parts and had them delivered to Chayo, a friend of some new friends in San Diego. We met up with Chayo and her daughter for breakfast, more of a lunch for us, and picked up our package. Again it was a measure of the people here as we tried to buy them breakfast as a sign of our appreciation for their help but they wouldn’t have it. Instead they brought us breakfast as a welcome to the city.

So what does Mexico City have to offer…

Pretty much everything and anything you want. When I say it is a seething mass of humanity I’m not exaggerating. This place is massive and with a population of 21 million it’s not surprising that there are literally swarms of people everywhere.

This just adds to the colour and character of the place. It’s not like an Asia city or any other metropolitan area that I’ve experienced. The people are engaging, friendly and actually talk to each other. Say good morning, or in this case ‘Buenos Diaz’ and they don’t look at you like you’ve gone completely mad like most Western city folk. They actually answer and wish you a good day.

There’s a degree of organisation but it seems chaotic at the same time. The larger roads are generally free of food stalls and hawkers but step into a side street and you’re surrounded by people buying and selling just about anything. It seems to be organised into groups of stores selling similar stuff, like the dress street, then into the stationary street then around the corner to the hardware street. Just up the road there’s the unlikely combination of the bike shop and prostitute street. This area has over 30 bike shops, most of which have one or two very bored looking ladies of leisure standing just outside the doors. Not really sure how that combination works.

Since we had a few days to fill in we did manage to do some exploring, visiting a massive city park that’s about seven km2 and full of museums, castles and lakes. Another day was spent at the ancient Mayan city of Teotihuacán. This place was a bit of a surprise being over 2000 years old and having the 3rd largest pyramid in the world, and you can climb it.

Exploring the central city with all its street art and entertainment took up a bit of time. It never stopped amazing us how the Mexican people entertain themselves. Busking is a way to make relatively good money, and the crowds just love it, literally dancing in the streets, while the city heaves around them.

We took the opportunity to do a bit of socialising as well. While walking to the Plaza on the second day we were here I commented that it would be funny to run into someone we knew, after all there’s only 21 million people here. Well about 30 seconds later we do just that, bumping into Chris and Sophie, a couple we’d met in St George, Utah and also ridden with a week earlier. Maybe the city ain’t so big after all.

I also took the opportunity to get my saddle modified since the leather had stretched to the point where I’d run out of tensioning bolt. After finding a leather works online I jump on the subway and head over. On arrival I’m met by Carlos Senior and Carlos Junior of Diablo Custom Leather. Carlos Senior was a master saddle (horse) maker before moving to Mexico City and Carlos Junior has done a bit of cycling in his time with various trophies on the walls of the workshop. They set to work on my saddle which turns out to be quite a fiddly job. All the while we’re talking in my very bad Spanish and their broken English about our trip and life in the city. After a couple of hours it’s done and it’s time to leave them. Despite my protests they refuse any payment and on top of that Carlos Junior comes with me for a few stops on the subway to show me where I can buy an o-ring for the cooker. Just amazing people. And then Karen decides they’ve done such a good job that she will get hers done as well. Again they refuse payment but she does reward them with the universal payment of beer.

And they make some pretty practical bike accessories too.

Not all is rosie for Mexico City though. I’m not sure what the original Spanish settlers were thinking but filling in a lake to build these massive stone buildings on probably wasn’t the smartest move. The place is literally sinking. Some of the buildings have a distinct lean on them. I’m not sure how stone buildings bend and warp but they do and still manage to stand up, just a bizarre sight.

It’s with a bit of sadness that we leave Mexico City but there’s more exploring to do. Sometimes taking the scenic route doesn’t get you far. We’ve realised there’s only four more months so getting to Chile isn’t going to happen this time around. So from here we’re heading south towards the Guatemala border then we’ve decided to cross over to Cancun then fly to Cuba for a month.

Our route into Mexico City.

Budgeting for bike touring

As we approach cycling 20,000 kms we have been reflecting on our budgeting. Leaving our jobs for 12 months with no income was fairly daunting for us. We worked out our daily budget for 12 months was around NZD109 (approx USD77 depending on the exchange rate). That was to include all our expenses after we started riding on June 16th 2018 – accommodation, food, flights and public transport; entertainment and replacing worn out bike parts. We quickly found that travelling through Alaska and northern Canada our budget wasn’t quite sufficient. Having said that we met other solo cyclists existing on only USD20 per day! In comparison to them our budget was lavish! As we travelled we started to save more money in what is termed by Americans as ‘the lower 48’ (lower 48 states) and after travelling in Mexico for just over two months we finally worked out we were living below our budget – yay 😀!

So where did the money go? Mostly it goes on food. Eating well and keeping our ‘one human powered engines’ healthy and well fed is a big priority for us. Add into that the ‘beer’ and ‘coffee’ budgets (both of which are unlimited due to their mental benefits) a fair chunk of our money happily goes into those. Accommodation is the next cost. So far we have been pretty good in this department. We soon realised that this is an area where we can make the biggest savings by camping as much as possible. When travelling in North America we only paid for five hotel stays. The rest of our accommodation was made up of camping (either free or paid for) or staying at homes opened up to us by fellow cycle tourists (or people who think we are totally mad and take pity on us). As far as flights and buses go – they don’t apply as yet as we have cycled almost every kilometre of our journey so far.

Dinner on the road – our Mexican version of Mac ‘n Cheese (with refried beans replacing the cheese).

The biggest surprise in our budget was how much replacement spares and equipment we needed. Prior to San Diego we made a list of all the gear we had replaced or brought and the cost was in excess of USD2,700! Since then we have spent a further USD1100 on spares – just over twenty percent of our budget! You may ask why I know this, but we have lots of spare time at night when camping to work this stuff out. Our bikes have taken a beating, particularly in the mud. Comfort for our bodies is also important and this has meant anything contacting the bike (ie our butts) have demanded several replacement shorts, saddles and gloves. At the end of the day our bikes and comfort are priceless (within reason) and blowing the budget a little is worth it. However, it has dawned on us that no matter how much you prepare and how good your gear is, it will start wearing out after months of daily use and it pays to be aware of this when you budget for a long bike packing trip.

Mud is one of the worst things for wearing out gear on the bike.

Since our last blog post we have travelled through sugar cane country to beautiful waterfalls and sights. We met up with Sophie and Chris, fellow bike tourers (road mostly) and hung out with them for several days. The highlight of our travels was Tumal Falls – a 100m waterfall from a beautiful green river.

A refreshing dip in the river above Tumel Falls – far enough away from the falls to not be a concern.

Tumel Falls

After that we headed for the ‘Cave of Swallows’ which is a 370m deep limestone cave where Swifts roost at night, then leave at dawn to go and find food in the forest at dawn and return to the cave at dusk. The camping for this sight was down one kilometre of steps – not ideal when you’re carrying a fully loaded bike down them. Luckily the locals let us camp in their back yard a short way down the steps saving us a lot of hard work.

Cave of Swallows – a VERY big hole in the ground.

View of dawn from our camp at Cave of Swallows.

We then went to Xilitla to visit the Edward James’ Las Pozas (gardens). Edward James was an eccentric Englishman who loved Orchids and lived in Xilitla. When one year all his orchids died from the frost he decided to re-create them in concrete. He hired 30 locals to help him in this project until he died in 1984.

Las Pozas

So what do you do when you’re in a town and you’ve visited all the parks, shops and churches you can stomach, and it’s only 4pm?? You go to a Cervesaria and drink with the locals! Cervesaria’s are a little like the public bars at home. Over here they are male dominated, although there were a couple of other women in this bar. It was one of those places your mother tells you not to go to. When we did walk in we felt pretty out of place and everyone was looking at us. They were smoking weed out in the smoking area and no one cared. We sat and ordered a Corona ‘mega’ bottle (1.2 litres of beer for a cost of USD1.50). The beer tasted good and after four of these almost everyone in the bar was our friends and the local music on the juke box sounded pretty good. To go to the bathroom I had to get toilet paper from the bar man and the toilet had no seat on it. I was careful not to touch anything in there as there was no hand basin to wash my hands in. It turned out to be a good way to spend a few hours for us.

Notice the classy decor in the background.

Tony making friends.

Today 7th of Feb we travelled from Jalpan to Puente de Dios over some very big hills…

We arrived at Puente de Dios and camped in a lovely camping area by the river. Puente de Dios is a natural limestone arch that has the river running through it. We paid our money to enter and started walking down the trail to the arch. There was a local woman walking in front of us, who we thought was just heading in the same direction as us. After a while we realised she was guiding us. We hadn’t signed up for this and asked if we could be alone, but she told us no. She stayed with us the entire time.

Tony walking up the trail with our impromptu guide.

The arch. A good place to have a shower.

We are now heading south toward Mexico City hoping to take in some interesting sights on the way. Here is our current location.

It’s Not All About The Bike

This week has seen us moving east from Durango to Tamasopo. There were a few dirt roads through some remote villages and also a fair bit of unavoidable highway. We stayed high and cold for a while before dropping 1500 metres back to the warmth. Although the riding has been pleasant it hasn’t been anything amazing, save for a few bits of very cool road like this cobbled backroad that climbed over a Pass. Who knows how old it was but it was a bit of a treat.

The biggest change we have noticed is how much warmer and greener it is further east. As soon as we dropped below 1500 metres our water bottles stopped freezing at night and it was a lot easier to get up in the mornings. But it’s wetter too, the land is more productive which appears to translate to more and wealthier communities.

But it wasn’t all about the bike. So what’s been going on? A couple of interesting experiences really.

Before reaching the mainland we were told not to go inland because of the gang (cartel) activity. We also heard about some cool places so decided we’d head that way anyway to check them out. So about 30km out of Durango we’re on a very rough dirt road in an obviously poor area when we come around a corner and there’s a very flash (read expensive) SUV parked on a one lane bridge like they own the show…maybe they do. All five guys are out of the car having a piss. They are expensively dressed and look very out of place. One of them is facing me with his old fella hanging out so I call out to let him know we are coming. He doesn’t care and carries on with his business…until Karen comes into sight. He hides his sausage pretty quick then. We have to stop because there is nowhere to go. This guy comes up and starts asking us what we’re doing and where we’re going, he actually had pretty good English. Then he tells us we shouldn’t be where we are because there’s bad people around. We’re both thinking the only bad people is this guy and his mates but tactfully decide not to tell him that. Then he wishes us luck and wants to shake our hands just after he’s been holding his wanger, yuck, and we’re on our way. We got back on the highway not long after that and stayed there for the rest of the day.

There’s no issues riding the Highways because they are well patrolled by heavily armed Police and Military. I’m not sure what the risk is but when you arrive in a town, this time Vicente Guerrero, to the Regional Band Champs and the event is patrolled by combat ready military there must be some risk…surely.

And it was the same riding into Zacatecas. We obviously came through the rough side of town and on that one 10km stretch of road there were at least 1/2 a dozen Police or Military patrols that passed us. All were two vehicle convoys and all were armed with assault rifles. One of the Military patrols had their 50 cal guns mounted and manned.

Anyway enough about the apparent risk that we just aren’t seeing. Zacatecas was a very cool old city that was well worth a day off. With its five or so cathedrals, a mountain to climb and an old gold mine to explore there was plenty to keep us busy.

And we met Daniel in a local bar. Daniel might have lead us astray a bit given half the chance. He was the only one in the bar when we arrived. Drinking his brandy that he’d brought by the bottle. But he was good value and even showed Karen a couple of salsa moves. Needless to say it was a bit of a slow start the next day.

On the way east I’m amazed by all the ways that people without regulations manage to carry things. There’s the donkey cart loaded high with corn. The old shitter car loaded with wood. The pickups with cattle or horses on the back. We saw this pickup being loaded and they just walked the cattle on. The springs were probably inverted but they got to where they were going. Then there’s the horses that are brought to town.

Now we’re hitting some tourist spots, but we seem to be the only gringos around. In Rioverde we stayed at Luna Laguna. These waters are amazing crystal clear spring water similar to Takaka’s Pupu Springs but comes out at about 30deg.

Then the real treat was arriving in Tamasopo and experiencing Puente de Dios and Cascada de Tamasopo. Puente de Dios is a very clear spring fed river that drops through a limestone canyon with swimming holes and caves to swim through. Just amazing.

Cascada de Tamasopo is a series of waterfalls that have been turned into a bit of a playground. And what a playground it is, even for us big kids. Who can resist a rope swing, especially with a backdrop like this.

Where we’ve been.

23/1/19 Durango to Vicente Guerrero via backroads and Highway. 99km

24/1/19 Wild camp outside San Francisco. Remote dirt roads. 124km

25/1/19 Zacatecas. A mix of rough dirt and highway. 126km

26/1/19 day exploring Zacatecas

27/1/19 Wild camp near El Zacaton. Highway and rural roads. 80km

28/1/19 Villa de Arista. Mainly quiet fast sealed roads. 151km

29/1/19 Wild camp near Angostura. Rural sealed roads. Big head wind. 113km

30/1/19 Rioverde. Easy day to get to Luna Laguna. 49km

31/1/19 Tamasopo. Quietish Highway. 108km

El Espinazo del Diablo – The Backbone of the Devil.

This is the name of part of the road from Mazatlán to Durango, and what an amazing route this has turned out to be. We climbed from sea level to 2700m over three days with the biggest climbing day being on day two where we climbed over 2500m. There was a huge difference in temperature – the temperature in Mazatlán being just over 30 degrees during the day to a much more pleasant riding temperature of low 20’s higher up. The only drawback was the nights were much colder, and we even had a frost at our camp on night three.

Night one we stayed in a motel at a town called Concordia and were entertained by dancing and some singing in the local plaza. The town was celebrating ‘Fiesta Del San Sebastián’ and most of the town was there watching the entertainment.

The next day was the big slog up the hill. Luckily the gradient was not too steep and the road was in good condition. The road is officially called the Mex 40, but this route has been replaced by the Mex 40D which cost 2.2 Billion to build and has 115 bridges and 61 tunnels! The biggest bonus was there was hardly any traffic so it felt like we were riding on a dedicated cycle route for us. This has meant some of the small towns and villages have suffered due to lack of traffic and have gone into decline. However at one small village in an unlikely location we did find a Chinese gym. As if climbing 2500m was not enough for me, I had to have a go on the gym.

The actual start of El Espinazo Del Diablo which stretches for about 10km.

Big rugged hills.

On day three we had reached 2500m and the land flattened out. We got to a place called El Ciudad which is located next to a National Park where there are stunning rocks and a waterfall that is quite a local tourist attraction. The town itself was a bit of a dive, but the surrounding countryside was stunning.

Our nicest, but coldest campsite on the route.

After La Ciudad we got off the pavement onto a dirt road that was a rail line at one stage. We were able to ride this road for about 50km all the way to El Salto which is a timber town. On the way we came across a couple of forestry crews. We noticed safety gear was not a priority, and the workers were cutting the logs into one metre lengths and then manually lifting them onto a truck. Along the route were a couple of old tunnels which were pretty cool.

By this time Tony’s bike had developed a loud squeak when he turned his pedals. There was no sneaking up on anyone with that noise. That meant a new bottom bracket when we reached Durango. After we got back to the Mex 40 it became much busier, and with no shoulder for us to ride on we thought we would look for an alternative way to get to Durango. One of our mapping apps on our phones suggested a route that took us on a ‘cycle trail’. We gladly got off the the Mex 40 and headed down this rocky road that soon turned into an unrideable track. It took us about 90 minutes to negotiate, but the scenery on it made it well worth it.

This was a short day so we had plenty of time to explore Durango which turned out to be a really neat city to walk around. Apparently it’s a bit famous for making movies and even had a walk of fame.

A well earned beer after five days riding.

A Week of Relaxation…It’s Time To Go

It’s 9pm. The ferry has just sailed from La Paz. We’ve been on board since 5.30…but that’s ok because it’s only an hour late and we’ve got another five months to get nowhere, or should that be to get everywhere. In any case time just doesn’t seem to be so important these days.

We have just climbed into our sleeping bags on the outside deck (it seems to be the place that all the peasant cyclists sleep). It’s warm and dark. The boat has that big boat vibration thing going on so I’m thinking sleep should come easy…it definitely will for Karen, she’s already there.

After a week off the bikes, save a easy 60km over the hill from La Ventana to La Paz you would think sleep would be he last thing that we need. But it almost seems the opposite…the less we do the more tired we get. It’s definitely time to hit the trail again.

But that doesn’t mean we haven’t thoroughly enjoyed the week off. Why a week off I hear someone ask. It’s simple really, the stars aligned. We had just finished the Baja Divide and needed a rest, it’s just a brutally fantastic ride. We were also going to be waiting for some parts to arrive but that’s another story. A week earlier we met some riders, Mary and Ermanno, on a trail who invited us to come visit them in La Ventana. A few days later we decided to take them up on their offer and arranged to be there Friday. It turns out we arrived on the Thursday and stopped at a cafe to grab a beer to celebrate finishing the Baja Divide.

This is where the world gets small. While sitting at the cafe a van pulls up and a woman jumps out, introduces herself and asks us if we want to stay the night at their place. Since we’re officially homeless we gratefully accepted with the distinct feeling that we’re being taken in like a couple of stray cats. Turns out this woman is Alenka who we heard about while I n Lake Tahoe. She bikepacked from Tahoe to La Ventana back in October / November. She and her husband Jim both knew a few of the people we met up in Tahoe.

So after finishing our beer and following Alenka’s directions we arrive at their house. We’re in for a real tropical treat. The house is a big palapa, open on three sides with all the living under a thatched roof but essentially outdoors. We get the guest quarters upstairs, it’s just amazing.

Anyway we get along like a house on fire and could quite easily stay for a month. Not sure Jim’s to keen on that though. But he is keen to show us the local mountain bike tracks. They are definitely worth it, so much fun ripping between the cactus on sweet flowing tracks.

After a couple of days we head to Mary and Ermanno’s for some more R&R. This couple have life sorted too. They did a two year bike tour about 10 years ago and decided life needed to change so they made it happen. Ermanno works remotely so they can lIve five months in La Ventana kitesurfing and mountain biking and the other seven months in Seattle. I definitely like the way they are thinking.

For some reason we keep gravitating back to Jim and Alenka’s. Karen loves their morning coffee. I’m not so sure what it is but they are bloody good company and remind us of friends at home.

After four days it’s time to go. We want to have a poke around La Paz before heading to the mainland. There’s some more single track to explore through the Cardon (cactus) forest on the way out of La Ventana. It is forecast to rain, it does that very occasionally down here, and the forecast is right. The rain arrives and Baja has one more serving of mud for us while riding through the forest before we get back to the road.

Before the rain…

After the rain.

La Paz is a pretty relaxed but vibrant city with lots of sculptures and mural art…but we’re not city people so having a poke around is biking through the old town and along the Malecon (waterfront) is enough for us.

The best thing about La Paz is the whale sharks that feed just off the coast so a swim with them was in order. That was an amazing experience. These are seriously big fish that just cruise around sucking in plankton. The two we swam with were about six meters long. What a buzz and such a privilege.

So Baja is behind us now. If anyone wants a challenging but very rewarding bikepacking adventure then the Baja Divide is a must do.

In front of us is mainland Mexico and another stage of the journey. We arrive in Mazatlán then we’ll take the El Espinazo Del Diablo (The Devils Backbone) into the mountains to Durango before heading south. We’re jumping out of our skins just itching to get going.

We knocked the bastard off!

This famous quote was uttered by Sir Edmond Hillary after he and Tenzing Norgay reached the top of Mt Everest. This is a little how I felt about completing the Baja Divide. Our achievement was not quite on the same scale as Sir Ed’s but we both shared a fair bit of satisfaction about finishing that we have not gained from riding any other route.

Why is this I wonder? Was it the steep climbs, rough corrugated (or as our American friends refer to as ‘washboard’) roads, the deep sand or ‘baby head’ sized rocky sections? Was it the flat road riding through ‘peanut butter’ type mud that took us hours to nurse our clogged up wheels through? Was it the supposedly easy flat riding that turned out to be much harder effort wise than the steep hill climbs because of deep sand / baby head rocks / mud or a combination of all three? I’m sure I’m painting a great picture here – and yes, this is what we do for fun. We commented to each other more than once along the route “This is still better than being at work” as we pushed our bikes over the rough ground.

So the final 9 days of the Baja Divide route started In Ciudad Constitución. The ‘highlight’ of leaving the city was riding through the city dump where much of the rubbish is burned. We were riding through thick rancid smoke for about 1km. What shocked us is there appeared to be people living in makeshift shacks at the dump – scavenging a living from other people’s rubbish.

Along this route we kept bumping into Jamie who is a fellow biker who hales from New York. He was travelling pretty light and had no cooker and was living on tortillas filled with tuna, avocado and peanut butter (no true American would leave home without peanut butter). We camped together the first night after leaving Ciudad Constitución and we talked him into sharing a hot dinner of our version of Mexican Mac ‘n cheese (it wasn’t too hard to talk him into that). We found a wonderful camp next to the river and we’re able to jump in and wash the sweat and dirt from the day off. Jamie commented that this was the best camp he’d stayed at.

The next day Jamie was on the road before we got out of the tent. The road was really rough with steep pinchy climbs. Both of us were hanging out for a cold coke, but none of the villages we passed through had any kind of shop. We caught up to Jamie and he was sitting in one of these villages outside of a school using the internet! We couldn’t believe there was wifi available when we couldn’t even purchase a coke. We asked what he was doing and he said he was feeling sick and was trying to decide whether to carry on riding to La Paz to see doctor or to try to get a ride. He was looking for some medical advice so I pulled out my phone and through the wonders of modern technology (and WhatsApp) was able to phone our friend ‘nurse Sandy’ in New Zealand so Jamie could ask her for some advice. It was decided he would carry on riding with us and seek further medical advice in La Paz. The next night we fed him again (we had taken way too much food with us) and he was really grateful for this. In return when we arrived in La Paz he brought us a big juicy steak each – not a bad deal we thought.

Back riding on the coast by the Sea of Cortez – Jamie and Tony.

The road over the mountains was really rocky and rough, but when we hit the coast rocky and rough was replaced by sandy and corrugated (even worse)! We had another 60km of this bone jarring road before we reached the sealed road. It was going to be a long 115kms to La Paz I thought. We climbed over a nasty steep 200m climb and descended back to the coast when there at the bottom of a small hill was a grader working the road! Yay we are saved! The grader driver had done a fantastic job and the gravel road to the seal was a piece of cake to ride. The added bonus was the strong tail wind we had all the way along the coast to La Paz – life was good!

Arriving in La Paz

After a day off on La Paz we started out on a loop in the southern tip of the peninsula with some of the best road surfaces we had ridden yet. For me, I enjoyed this loop the best. Sure there was still some challenging riding, but the scenery changed quite a bit. We ended up riding along the coast on the Sea of Cortez again with beautiful clear water. Our first camp out of La Paz was in a small bay that some local mountain bikers we met on the road recommended to us. It was perfect and we had the whole place to ourselves. The water was so clear we could see fish swimming around the rocks. Tony really wished he had his spear gun and snorkel gear with him.

We continued south along the coast passed lots of holiday homes that are clearly owned by Canadian and North American ‘Snowbirds’ who are escaping the ravages of winter in their home towns. There were Gringos everywhere riding their four wheelers or beach buggy’s. There was heaps of property for sale along the coast line and I got the feeling locals were selling their prime real estate to foreign buyers (aka selling their heritage). We then headed back into the hills for more steep climbing…

Here the scenery started to change. Everything was more lush. The cactus’ were competing with trees and bushes for desert real estate. The roads had signs of water damage and there was water in the creek beds. It was also a lot warmer and we used a couple of the creeks to wet our shirts to try to stay cool.

Cactus growing amongst the trees.

Donkeys waiting to be loaded up with firewood.

We finished our loop after 6 days in La Ventana. The last night on the road we arranged to meet up with Jamie again for one last group meal of our special Mexican Mac ‘n cheese and some dessert of Oreo yoghurt – yum!

So having said all that, would I recommend this route to other people – yes absolutely, but with the proviso they don’t go into it thinking it will be a walk in the park.

Here’s where we’ve been.