Refinding my Groove – Stories from Southern Mexico

Just before Mexico I found myself in a bit of a funk, it had been over a year an a half living on a bike in a part of the world culturally removed from just about everything familiar. Central America disappeared behind me pretty rapidly, and to be perfectly honest I wasn’t too fussed to see it go.

El Salvador and Guatemala were exceptions for me in Central America, and I enjoyed them both a lot – but the countries further south left me with a stale flavour in mouth. I’d had some stuff stolen at night in Costa Rica, and it seemed that I was having almost daily arguments with locals who were doing their best, and usually succeeding, in ripping me off. Not an experience that was so obvious in South America by my reckoning (Nicaragua was the worst for it).

I’m one of the lucky ones though when it comes to noting and dealing with culture shock. I studied for a year in Canada and touched down there in the middle of winter when I arrived. That first month or 6 weeks was the most mentally taxing time I’ve ever had, and now I recognise it whenever it pops up, and more importantly I know that it really is just a mental game. It’s pretty easy to get into those sorts of self defeating thought chains and very easy to dig out of them as well when you realise where you are, how beautiful a place is, and how to take your mind away from toxic thought processes.

Anyway, crossing into Mexico was kind of a welcome change. At least geographically it meant I was in North America, even if culturally it’s still very much Latin America. It felt like I was inching closer to the USA and Canada, which was my goal when I started out. I’d been looking forward a lot to the National Parks in the USA and fantasising about dusty South Western deserts and canyons and then ultimately the stark transition into the rockies. I also have a lot of friends up that way so I know that I’ll never feel as far away once I get there.

I entered Mexico into Chiapas, opting to forego the heat on the Yucatan Peninsula and to try and head North towards the USA via a shorter route so I could make it to Canada in time for Christmas. It’s perhaps the first time I’ve had to make a decision based on seasons or on needing to be somewhere by a certain date.

Santiago blitzed me in a pedal race on the coast of Oaxaca, then spotted me a huge lunch of tacos with questionable meat and grapefruit soda

I’ve always told people my character is to crave structure and unstructure simultaneously, with one always winning over the other. The degree to which this battle is real and ultimately won over by the other is tied to how long I’ve been in one particular mode, so when I’m stuck in a zone of structure eventually it becomes a physical necessity to throw it away, and vice versa. I haven’t always been the best at realising when it’s time to change, so for the last few years I’ve done my best to not question it when I suspect it’s time. One of those thoughts along the lines of, ‘the hardest part is usually just diving off the deep end to begin with, ultimately nothing is so hard when the process is underway’. Anyhow all of that is I guess to say that it actually feels pretty good to have somewhere to be, and the fact that (at least in Southern Mexico) it was still 8 months away left some room for some creativity and spontaneity also.

At the point that I entered Mexico, I was exhausted. There was still nothing I’d rather be doing, but I was beginning to realise how tiring it can be to be constantly wrestling with an unfamiliar culture, and the constant process of learning and processing a language that’s not your own. My Spanish is ok these days, but often I still jump between the two languages internally, and the constant focus is unlike anything I’ve ever had to maintain in other circumstances. I was hoping Mexico might be something of a remedy for this – and I was immediately aware that it would be.

It started with a strong argument with the migration official, who adamantly told me that since I crossed at a land border, I would only be able to stay 90 days. I asked about extending it, the answer was a firm ‘no’. I explained I needed more time since I was on a bike, the answer was ‘I don’t care’. I got angry and yelled, and the answers stopped altogether. I later met other cyclists who crossed a land border from the USA with 6 months up their sleeve, so I don’t know what the game was at my entry – and I’m not really sure what will happen when I leave, but I expect it’ll end up with me being out of pocket a few dollars.

Bikes of the colourful Mexicanos

Estado Chiapas is a pretty place which seemed to change a lot in a small space. Coming out of Guatemala, I was thrown out of a slot canyon type valley and into a barren desert for a few hundred kilometres, and when I finally climbed up and out to San Cristóbal de la Casas the landscape had already changed to pine forests and images that I thought could be in North America. It essentially set the tone for a country which I’d guessed might have a few surprises awaiting.

I had a few days off in San Cristóbal and camped out the back of a hostal a little away from the centre of town. It was a ramshackle old mansion with a bunch of adobe additions out the back, it was full of hippies and pleasant Cuban rhythms wafted about constantly amidst a skunky backdrop – basically a nice place to relax for a few days after a more or less nonstop run from Antigua in Guatemala until well into Mexico.

En route to Oaxaca I found Municipio to take me in. They had a cyclists wind vane and I knew where I had to sleep.

When I finally left the place it was to a ripping headwind down to the coast in Oaxaca. I stopped briefly and was put up for the night by a warm showers host in Tuxtla Gutierrez and found out he was the organiser of the local night rides group and that I was there on the right evening to tag along. We headed out to rampage the city for a few hours as a group of 50 or so and afterwards spent too long pushing back cervezas at the nearest bar.

Mexcalerias of the Oaxaqueña highland

Wild camping near Atlixco

Somehow I managed to head off the next day into an even stiffer headwind and battled through a hard 80km for the day before running into a cyclist I’d met way back in Colombia. He’s a bit of an odd fellow and we passed one day riding together, I was happy to say goodbye the next morning and forge my own way. Not far out of the small town where we were staying, I was stopped by a woman in a roadside tienda and was gifted, and then taught about, all the mango varieties grown in the area. A particular favourite was the mango-piña, which you massaged into something that could be drunk directly out of a hole in the top – instant mango smoothie and a new technique which largely kept the sticky goodness off your hands.

Oaxaca. Back to cactus country. The people are as warm as the weather.

I pushed on and made more friends en route to Oaxaca city, where I was put up by a local outside the city for 3 nights, and then headed into the city eventually to meet another friend who was in the area. In the end I spent about a week there, largely because the food in the area was so good and because it seemed necessary to sample every type of mezcal I could – the area is famous for it.

Short glimpses of a 4000m pass up ahead

I headed off towards Puebla in search of the high volcanoes which flanked Mexico City, and climbed slowly up into Parque Nacional Izta-Popo where I spent a few days seeking mountain refuges to roll my mat out. I descended eventually with a splitting headache and a vomit taste in my mouth since I’d headed up pretty quickly. All asides it was beautiful and the national parks to the South and West of the city probably eclipse the chaos of Mexico City for most cycle tourists. Izta-Popo for example, is a pine forest at it’s lower flanks, but bursts into open space as soon as you clear the treeline. It’s chock full of trails for riding and exploring, and if you’re lucky enough to see the clouds clear you get to glimpse two glacier capped monsters as the two volcanoes burst into view. I wasn’t quite so lucky, but managed to glimpse the peaks late at night from a high altitude refugio for a few minutes. The refuge was one of the nicest I’ve found, with bunks and fireplaces and a few places to sit and reflect and eat.

This refugio was offered by a convent high in the mountains. I couldn’t find anyone to grant me permission but the fireplace seemed welcoming enough

Volcanoes in Parque Nacional Izta-Popo. Shot from Refugion Altzomoni at 4000m

I’d intended to head through two more national parks around the city, but was trapped in the outskirts of the huge and sprawling place and ultimately gravitated towards the centre where I rested for a few more days.

Parque Nacional Izta-Popo

Parque Nacional Izta-Popo

 

I had absolutely no ideas or expectations about what Mexico City might be like, since I’d never intended to visit it. I can now report that it’s a pretty magnificent city, I’m not sure I’ve seen such an enormous central plaza in any other city in the world. I quickly realised it’s capacity to empty my wallet though and after a few nights headed North towards Huasteca Potosina where I’d been promised bounties of waterfalls to balance the humidity I expected.

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