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.