Almost every village in Mexico has an annual festival in honor of their patron saint. With so many villages and so many saints, it was inevitable to come across one of these festivities as we tour the country. As we were climbing into the mountains just before Oaxaca a guy with a camera flagged us down to ask about our trip. After chitchatting for a bit, he told us the town was having its festivities and invited us to come check it out and get in on the free dinner. He assured us that we could camp anywhere in the village. We deliberated a bit because we wanted to get to Oaxaca the next day, but that would be unlikely if we stopped here. Someone once gave us the travel advice to “always say yes” and we have tried to let that philosophy guide a lot of our decisions.
We ducked under the edge of a huge green tent and were faced with a sea of picnic tables filled with locals. No other gringos were in sight. Our patron sat us down and then went off to continue his filming of the event.
We were each given a massive bag of flour tortillas, which is strange because most tortillas south of Sonora are corn. They were wide, flat and a bit tough, but I liked them. We were told, with a smile, that we must take what we don’t eat with us or the Majordomo, who is throwing the party, would think we don’t like them and would be sad.
Our neighbors were a bit shy and standoffish at first and we were feeling a bit weird about being there. I finally asked what was going on and they opened up and became very friendly. Unfortunately they were already finished with their dinner and when they left new people came and ignored us. I again asked what was going on and started talking with the woman to my left. Eventually the guys to my right became really chatty and one said he was sorry, but he thought we didn’t speak Spanish.
I was confused about this Majordomo character. My first inclination was that he might be a local narco boss trying to play the patron or some rich landowner, but then we found out that it was several old guys. I couldn’t get a clear picture of who they were though. I looked up the term and found out that the Majordomo is typically someone that runs a company or an estate for an absentee landlord, which doesn’t really clear anything up.
The rodeo, or jalipero, eventually began after seemingly endless formalities. A lot of the bulls were somewhat weaksauce though and just ran for the door and hung out over there. I’m not sure how you choose a winner in that kind of situation.
We were touched once again by the kindness and trust we received when a local family that runs a roadside tent store offered for us to sleep in the building where they store their stock.
Despite all the action going on, we managed to get to bed early and had an early start the next day. We spent most of the day winding around along a ridge on a nearly empty road with spectacular views in both directions. Then we had a glorious downhill into the central valley of Oaxaca and got onto some nice dirt roads.
We considered getting a hotel as it got dark, but could only find those sleazy auto hotels where you can take your mistress without fear of anyone seeing your car as it hides behind your private garage curtain. We weren’t too far out and rode the last few miles in the dark along a nasty canal with bugs pummeling our faces. We were exhausted when we got in, but scored a psychological victory with our longest day since we got back to Mexico.
Logistics for touring cyclists wanting to do this hike are at the bottom of the post.
How I plan our cycling routes is simple: enter where we are in Google Maps and where we are going and get the highway route; see if there is a lighter-shaded line that also goes there. There is a mountain range between Mexico City and Puebla. There is one major highway connecting the cities, and then there is this squiggly grey line to the south, my obvious choice. It didn’t take long to realize there was a huge volcano next to the pass, so clearly I wanted to hike it. It’s erupting, so that one was out. I learned that it’s sister peak, Iztaccíhuatl, is open. Sold!
We had a nice, flat ride out of Mexico City and got our cheapest hotel yet ($8) in Amecameca, at the base of the road to the Paso de Cortes. The next day was only 16 miles of riding, but it was a tough 16 miles. We started out at 8,140 ft (2,480 m), which is about the same as the highest point in our very difficult Sierra Gorda crossing a few weeks ago. Brandy was for some reason lacking energy and in a poor mood, so the 7.7% grade took its toll and we stopped every half mile or so. The poor air quality in the Valley of Mexico probably didn’t help. We spent the entire day climbing through the pine forest and finally topped out around 4:00 PM at the Paso de Cortez at 11,150 ft (3,400 m). We were planning to camp at the pass and then hitchhike the five miles to the trailhead in the morning, but we met some awesome hikers from Veracruz, Viktor, Omar and Cristina at the park office and they agreed to give us a ride, laughing and joking the entire way.
We were pleased to find a structure that provided us with some shelter from the wind where we could set up the tent with a view of the twinkling lights of Mexico City far below. The Veracruz crew would hike in the dark to a hut halfway up so they could get an early summit run. There was also a pair of hikers from Los Angeles camping at the trailhead. They had already been at the hut, but were overcome by the altitude and went back down to Amecameca to recover. They had returned and would make a summit attempt at midnight. Everyone was so serious; we were just going for a hike. Actually, I was pretty excited because this would be the highest I’d hiked by at least a couple thousand feet and I was interested to see how it would affect me.
After a failed attempt to get a decent fire going with the wet sticks available, we got to bed early and slept soundly aside from some barking nearby. A stray dog had taken up residency at the trailhead and served as nightly protection for campers. His barks echoed wildly through the valleys, painting a picture in our minds of the vastness of the space we occupied. Brandy reported hearing coyotes in the night, but Rover must have kept them at bay. Other than that it was utterly silent.
I managed to get up before sunrise (Brandy did not, of course) and was greeted by frost glistening on the ground. Despite being beat from the previous day, we managed to get on the trail by 6:45. The trailhead starts at 13,040 ft (3,970 m) and I could feel the elevation in my legs and breath right away. Everything felt heavier and we proceeded more slowly than we would have lower down. I had a bit of a headache and although I attributed it to us idiotically not hydrating enough the previous day (I really cannot understand how we are so conscientious of our health, but somehow still routinely fail to drink enough water when riding), I remained alert to further altitude symptoms. The morning started out clear and we had great views of Popocatepetl, the erupting volcano.
The views got better and better throughout the morning, but soon the clouds started pouring over the ridge above us. Other clouds rose up the valley to meet them. They produced some interesting effects, but before long the entire summit was closed in and eventually we were completely surrounded. The rest of the climb to the shelter was a surreal landscape of shifting white mist and barren rocks. It was windy and cold whenever we were on the Puebla side of mountain. We decided to push up to the shelter and decide from there whether to complete the summit.
When we reached the shelter we were reunited with the Veracruzanos who were still planning to summit. We also met three French hikers who had been tailing us for the last half of the hike; each time the mist would lighten, their dim outlines would emerge a couple hundred feet below us. After eating lunch we decided that we’d head down. We were quite exhausted, Brandy was chilled, my headache was worse and accompanied by slight nausea (a sure cue to descend) and the clouds were thick – no point in beating ourselves to get to the top for no view.
We got down fairly quickly, with a few stops to appreciate the views that opened up below the cloud line, and then caught a ride down to the Paso where we’d camp before riding down to Puebla and back to warmth the following day.
This hike revived our desire to get off the bikes and into the mountains from time to time. We have also been inspired to do more high-elevation hikes though with a bit more preparation next time so we can actually get to the top and have a view. It seemed a bit ridiculous that we were just tra-la-la-ing around on this mountain going for a nice hike when there were all these people decked out in helmets and other gear, some of whom had flown halfway around the world to hike this peak. One of the reasons for the trip is that we have the freedom to stumble across and take advantage of epic opportunities that would otherwise require significant advanced planning and expense. We are quite lucky to be able to have these experiences.
This was a really beautiful hike and was a good intro to high-altitude hiking because if its non-technical nature. I recommend printing the trail description from http://www.summitpost.org/iztaccihuatl/150193. I added some notes in the comments section.
Notes for cyclists:
We spent the night in Amecameca in the very affordable Hotel San Carlos ($130 pesos 2 ppl, 1 bed) on the main square next to the market. The market is open until 8:00 PM and is especially flush with cycle-friendly snacks. The vendors are quite liberal with samples. The road up to the Paso was paved and in great shape with little traffic. Another option is to take a combi or taxi up there from Amecameca. The road down the other side to Puebla is hard-packed dirt with lots of runnels for the first half and then deteriorates into a bumpier rocky surface with several patches of sand. We had the ride the brakes the entire way.
Park entrance fee: $30.50 pesos per person/day
– At Paso de Cortes for $30.50 pesos per person/day
– At La Joya (trailhead), presumably for free. There are a couple sheltered spaces with nice benches but they’d likely fill up on the weekends. There are also a couple sheltered “kitchen” areas with concrete counters with grill pits built in.
– There are several decent camping spots along the trail up to the shelter and the shelter has space for about 12-18 people in large bunks.
We were able to store our bikes and gear in a back room at the park office at the Paso de Cortes (open 7:00 AM – 8:00 PM, daily) free of charge and felt safe with that option. You could ride to La Joya and lock your bike to a sign there, but then your gear is still out. We considered doing that and putting our stuff in our tent. It seemed like it would be a fairly safe option. The ride from the Paso to La Joya is a five-mile climb on a rough dirt road. There is sand in several places and the entire way is riddled with runnels. We had no problem finding a ride on a Wednesday afternoon, although if they hadn’t been able to take us, we’d have been stuck. Mexicans are very friendly and will help you out if they can.
One-liter bottles of water are available at the Paso for $15 pesos.
2/19/15 Fishing Hut to Caimanero
The morning was beautiful, but as usual we got a slower start than hoped. I’d wanted to do some pre-dawn riding, but it is nearly impossible for us to do anything before it gets light out so I have to accept that it simply will never happen.
We had more long rollers and boring highway on the approach to Mazatlán, and a solitary Oxxo gas station for some snacks and coffee. Google made it appear as if the toll road detoured around Mazatlán through some suburbs at the edge of town. I was a bit concerned about the traffic there, but we figured the OXXO stop would tide us over until we could grab some legit breakfast in the burbs. We did not fill up our water.
Today’s lesson: ALWAYS GET WATER, ass.
This is one of my cardinal rules of world travel*. It still astounds me that I would have failed to comply with such a simple and important edict.
Shortly after the Oxxo we came to the junction of the Libre and Cuota, with the Cuota peeling off on some beautiful brand new concrete straight up a less than beautiful hill.
Alarm bells started going off as we climbed to the summit in temperatures that felt at 10:30 to be matching yesterday’s scorching max and the fingers of hunger began sliding around our ribs. I started questioning my leadership choices in my head, ‘Hmm, this looks like a lot of barren hills, not at all like any sort of development.’
‘Maybe over this hill we’ll drop into… nope, more barren hills.’
‘Gee, this road looks really new. Maybe it’s a bypass that doesn’t go through anything. Being so new, it probably doesn’t have any services yet. I sure am hungry and this water is going down pretty fast. How far is it to Villa Union? Let’s see… this minus that… uh, ohh 20 miles. These hills sure are brutal in this heat!’
There was absolutely nothing, and very little traffic. The surface was great, but the terrain was challenging. The only form of life was a very odd man in long pants and a sweater walking down the side of the road carrying nothing. We stopped under a bridge to assess the situation. Water was down to less than one bottle per person and the heat was sucking it out our pores in rivers. We were very hungry so we ate the rest of our chips for a bit of energy and sodium. We ate a carrot for its water. The strange, bug-eyed man walked past us and did not return our greeting. We pushed on.
The highway threw the hills out of perspective. We would mount a rise and feel the motivation drain from our hearts as we gazed upon some heartless mountain in front of us, only to have it contract in front of our eyes as we approached until it was barely greater than flat. But then other gentle rises would creep on and on tilting slowly upward until we found ourselves inexplicably in our lowest cogs. I tipped up my water and a cactus and some dust came out instead.
Like a beacon of light, or perhaps a splash of ice water on parched flesh, we rounded a corner were back in civilization as we mounted the exit for Villa Union. We pushed into the first miserable roadside restaurant we saw, grabbed refreshments from the fridge and plopped into shaded chairs. Sugar water infused with artificial colors poured into our bodies like ambrosia while jewels of glistening condensation dripped from the bottles onto our bare legs.
We had met a British guy named Wayland at the hostel we stayed at for Carnaval in Mazatlan several days earlier. He was heading to Durango next and while exiting the highway, I thought how funny it would be if we met him here. This would be the logical place to thumb out of town. As we rode over to another restaurant, sure enough, there he was standing on the side of the road with a piece of cardboard lettered, ‘Durango’. It was an interesting coincidence. Seeing a surprise familiar face out on the road is a treat. Things like this make me feel as though I am living in some sort of story, in a very good way. I read a blog somewhere that said, ‘Sometimes I wonder if my life is a movie like The Truman Show. I travel because I want to see how big they can make the set.’ Ha! That is as good of a reason to travel as anyone should ever need.
After a mediocre and overpriced lunch we went into the Oxxo to enjoy the A/C and while away some of the hottest part of day. Before this trip I would have never thought how relaxing it could be to sit in a corporate convenience store, but here we were basking in the fluorescent glow of standardization.
This was a decision point. Our next known destination was Escuinapa, about 40 miles down the highway. We had plotted a route that would take us down along the beach, thus avoiding much of the highway doldrums. The added miles matter little to us. The problem was that the route on Google seemed to traverse a narrow isthmus of land between a giant lagoon and the ocean. However, the newly purchased Guia Roji showed this isthmus to actually be a peninsula, ending at the mouth of a large bay, with no crossing. It would be extremely frustrating to ride 20 miles only to find the road petering out into some body of water. I was worn out and on the verge of suggesting we just stay on the highway to crush this stretch as quickly as possible. We asked around and the consensus was that the road did exist, but several people said that it was “muy peligroso” because it is a lonely, unused road and therefore we would have a great chance of being robbed. We usually discard vague threats of danger out of hand, but in this case, many people were saying the same thing. We finally asked who I’ve come to believe is the utmost authority on rural roadway conditions – a traveling representative of a large agribusiness firm. Francisco laughed in his white, logoed polo when questioned about the supposed dangers and said that not only did it exist, but it was a VERY beautiful route.
We were beaten down from the lousy morning, but again, things would turn around completely. As soon as we got through town we were on quiet roads through colorful farmlands. The farmers were even more friendly than usual, if that is even possible, and we spent the next couple hours smiling and waving. Sometimes you roll into a town and can immediately feel negative vibes and know this is not the kind of place you want to stick around. On the other hand, some places just feel good and you know you’re in a happy place. It’s just a feeling, but palpable and real. The first village we passed through, Walong, was a “feel good” town – one of the best. Families were out relaxing and enjoying the evening. We stopped to ask some older folks for directions and they were so sweet, we wanted to adopt them as grandparents.
Passing trucks were stuffed with veggies from the fields and the overflowing produce spilled out as they rumbled past. Dinner was heavily influenced by the addition of copious groundscores.
The road finally came to within 500 feet of the beach before turning parallel through palm plantations and pepper fields. We could have ridden on, but were tired and sore and turned down an access path toward the water almost immediately. After wrestling the bikes down the long sandy track we really hoped it would lead to a decent spot to camp and not some worthless dead end. Sure enough, there was a huge palapa right there with a table and stump stools. Someone had been there during the day and we were able to revive their coals to cook dinner over one of the nicest fires yet!
The sand stretched out of sight in both directions and the only person we saw all evening as we watched the sun set over the Pacific was some guy digging a massive hole just down the beach, presumably our graves. The stars came out bright over the deserted beach and we fell asleep in our hammocks listening to the surf crashing 100 feet away.
*My cardinal rules of world travel apply to everyone, but especially backpackers and cycle tourists:
– Always fill your water whenever you get a chance, even if you don’t need it;
– Always eat when you can, even if you are not hungry;
– Always do laundry when you have a chance, even if most of your clothes are clean; and last, but certainly not least
– Always, for the love of god, always use the bathroom when one is available, even if you don’t feel the need, especially before getting on a bus. A caveat to this would be to not drink your usual four cups of morning joe when you have a ten hour bus ride in front of you.
2/18/15 La Cruz to Fishing Hut
It’s strange how much more boring it is to be on the highway than side roads through the same scenery. Our next day was one big yawn fest filled with flat tires and not much else. Highways are also bad for tires because of all the tiny pieces of metal wire from truck tires laying around. We had ordered Brandy a new Armadillo badass tire, but the bike shop got the wrong one and, due to it arriving later than we were told it would, by the time we were picking it up, we didn’t have time to make any changes and have regretted that.
We GTFO of the campsite quickly to avoid our ant friends and started our boring highway day with Brandy stopping a hundred feet from camp to check a noise, forgetting she was clipped in and toppling over on the ground. We had a nice breakfast next to the highway in an SOS bench, woo! The shoulder alternated between silky smooth new pavement and stretches where they hadn’t bothered to put the final layer on because, hey, it’s Mexico, why the fuck not? These stretches were nice and bumpy and strewn with pebbles. The bridge joints had been built with the anticipation of completed pavement, several inches above the unfinished level, so there were stiff speed bumps on bridges, ya know, generally at the bottom of a downhill, right before going back up. For the beginner cyclist reader, this is the type of place where one might wish to conserve momentum as opposed to slowing to a near crawl to hump over some useless bump without your shit flying everywhere.
After the miles of farms, the highway goes through a large nature preserve that was kind of pretty, although it’s tough to enjoy the scenery with big rigs barreling past every few seconds. We are getting more and more out of the desert as the vegetation changes to small deciduous trees and shrubs with fewer cacti. We did quite a bit of climbing in the hot afternoon sun, passing several signs for a parking area that would presumably be at the top. Brandy was completely prepared to lay down in the shadow under a truck, but the rest area more matched my fantasy of a modern rest area with cold water faucets, bathrooms and shaded picnic tables with expansive views all the way to the ocean at which you could enjoy refrigerated beverages sold at the adjacent kiosk, complete with beads of condensation rolling down the side. Oh yeah, the picnic tables were also a great place to change yet another flat on, yup, the Flak Jacket tire (conveniently located on the rear). This was a great upgrade from the dusty, mosquito-infested strip between the highway and an irrigation canal where we changed one the day before.
The road continued to provide when I finally found a Guia Roji road map at an Oxxo. You’d think these things would be sold at all highway gas stations, but this is not the case. I have been chasing this map for about a thousand miles through Mexico. I finally got it, although nothing too comprehensive, just a folding country map.
It’s always amazing how the touring cyclist life is one of vast contrasts. You bounce around from amazing to horrific to boring to beautiful from day to day, hour to hour and sometimes even minute to minute. We have been fortunate enough to have almost every tough and/or lousy day end on an extremely high note. Today’s dullsville, puncture acres was no different. The road seemed to want to make up for throwing us so many flat tires and the lousy, bug-ridden camping spot the night before. Did I forget to mention that we had to climb over barbed wire to get to it? How about the fact that every single growing thing was spiky despite that we thought we’d left the desert behind. Yup, even the thick main trunks of the trees we were hanging our hammocks on had thick rows of thorns to puncture our poor flesh. Perhaps I also forgot to mention how we were positioning our bikes in the dark and Brandy said, “we should shine the lights down to make sure we don’t run over any loose barbed wire.” A good idea, I thought just before taking another step into a rusty strand of barbed wire that tore a gash in my calf. This was our camp the night before. What wonders would await us tonight?
I was picturing something along the lines of the crappy spot we had the night before, while Brandy was envisioning some easily-accessible covered place where we could have a fire, really, she wanted a miracle. Late afternoon found us riding through a large flood plain fed by several small rivers. As we crossed one we happened to notice a small hut just below the highway next to the bridge with a faint path to a fence gate. This is the dry period so this seasonal fishing hut was long vacant. It was perfect. We were hidden from the road, with a place for our hammocks, a fire ring and plenty of flood dragged driftwood, and we had arrived with plenty of time to explore the vast floodplain and watch the sunset. There were even baskets to hang the food! Never mind the spiders who were unhappy to make our acquaintance. Luckily for them, I do not squash their type.
The day had drastically turned around in our favor, much like the following day would.
Time just seemed to drip by in San Blas. The days went slowly, but at the end it seemed like it had gone so quickly. After our initial two weeks were up, we weren’t ready to go and kept adding one more day again and again until we’d been there almost three weeks. How did we end up spending so much time in this beautiful but buggy little fishing village on the Pacific?
It was time for a break. We’d been traveling pretty much non-stop for about ten months and decided we needed to find a spot to take it easy and work on some random projects that were in our heads and really to just have a place of our own for a bit. We’d heard much about the coast of the state of Nayarit from locals, and I’d read several cyclist blogs talking about San Blas. We figured we’d go there first and then decide if we’d stay or check out some more of the coast. But first we needed to hit the pedals and churn out a few miles from Culiacan. Despite our desire to get there quickly, our desire to avoid the doldrums of the toll highway was greater, so we took a couple scenic detours on the way.
2/17/15 Culiacán to La Cruz
The industrial, exhaust-belching highway out of Culiacán was still better than the hectic nightmare we’d ridden in on. The highway had auxiliary lanes where traffic was lighter and moved more slowly and most of the traffic was professional truck drivers rather than crazed commuters. I actually somewhat enjoy riding through industrial wastelands, provided the road is safe and air pollution levels are within a reasonable standard. Maybe it is the engineer in me, but I like to see the inner workings of a place, not just the showpieces. Shortly before we got out of this zone we passed a large crash that had involved a moped. There did not appear to be any ashen faces or gruesome material on the roadway, so hopefully the driver of that vehicle escaped unscathed.
This was a spur road that funnels traffic from the city to the Cuota national highway. As soon as we skipped over the Cuota everything was completely different. We were again on a beautiful two-lane road with lane-sized shoulders built for agricultural vehicles. Back into the veggie basket of Mexico with endless green fields, heaping produce trucks and friendly farmers. There were even people cleaning up trash from the road; all trash, not just returnables!
We blew past a roadside stand selling pan de mujer (lit. bread of woman) and I screeched to a halt in the dusty verge. This is typical Mexican sweet bread that comes in many different varieties. You may have seen it with the crumbly sugar topping in a checkerboard pattern. It was probably crappy. We were on a roll and I didn’t want to stop, but I am a sucker for roadside stands, so we went back. We have talked a lot about balancing the adventure and exploration with focused riding because there have been so many times where we were making time and did not take advantage of obvious opportunities to stop and talk to friendly people. We’re doing this trip to be able to make stops, taste the food and meet the people, but then it is so difficult to break out of a good rhythm, especially on days when we get started later than desired, i.e., every day.
Well, let me tell you, the bread was very good. She had the typical breads, and then some that were filled with pumpkin and others filled with cajeta (that caramel-like substance made from cane sugar). I had a very tough time understanding her accent, but I did make out that there had been another couple cycling through there a couple months back. She had first thought we were the same ones because of our apparent resemblance, but perhaps the resemblance goes no further than the overloaded cycles. Another benefit of the stop was that we finally figured out what the little dome ovens were that we’ve been seeing on the sides of the road.
We stopped for lunch at the El Huizchal restaurant in El Dorado, outdoors as usual. I tried the tostadas de pata. I was under the impression from my discussions with the waitress that pata was something to do with skin, but online searches come up with foot and/or tendon. Whatever it is, the texture was of the type that makes me want to hurl, so it was tough to finish. No problem. When you try new things, sometimes you get barfyville.
The family that owned the place was very friendly and had a good vibe. They offered Brandy a cot in the back to nap on because she was taking a power nap on the table. Before we left they took our photo with the bikes and when they sent the pics they said we were a huge inspiration to them, which helps inspire us to keep going.
We were planning to get in a few more miles of riding, but then Brandy got a flat and it was starting to get dark, so we climbed over the barbed wire fence and set up camp in some thorny, ant-ridden woods. The ants were so out of control that we skipped making dinner and just ate tortilla chips in the hammocks.
We spent a week in the “Pueblo Magico” of Álamos, Sonora. Luckily our Warm Showers host, Paul let us stay a preposterous amount of time during the FAOT music festival when we would have had a hard time finding reasonable accommodation. I think he secretly welcomed the excuse to sit around drinking coffee and talking instead of working. What a strange festival! It is in honor of a famous opera singer, and much of the music is oriented as such, but there are also random acts such as an American blues singer and whomever wants to get together in the streets to play. The old ladies and classical music students rule the week, but on the weekends the squares are flooded with youths carrying bags of beer. The final weekend is especially crazy as every youth in Sonora pours into town to party. Rock bands headline and the uniquely Sonoran cyclone mosh pits grow. Rather than just running around slamming into whomever you can hit, everyone skips, jumps and prances in a smooth counter-clockwise circle bouncing off one another, forming linked bands for others to attempt to destroy and throwing beer around. The hardcore moshers run in the opposite direction to get thrashed. Drunks roam the streets singing joyously and Norteño bands blast their Polka in the arroyo until the full light of day.
After over a week of this, it was finally time to move on. Paul convinced us to go back to our original route plan and take the back roads to El Fuerte, another “Pueblo Magico” in the neighboring state of Sinaloa. He told us it was very challenging, but had been the best part of his ride from Álamos to NYC. There are no direct routes between the towns, only a web of unpaved tracks connecting small villages. I drew out a detailed paper map including mileages and villages gleaned from Google and we set out midday after a leisurely breakfast.
We immediately became confused. There were far more intersecting roads than had appeared on the map and the couple people we met were of no help. Eventually we came to a road that was probably our turnoff and we left the pavement to climb a steep hill into the bush. As we continued, I was more and more convinced we’d made the correct decision and it was confirmed when we flagged down a truck full of drunk old men. They all talked at once giving conflicting directions on how to get to El Fuerte, but the one thing their flailing arms all agreed upon was that straight ahead was the way to go.
The road serviced a huge mine, so it was well maintained, and despite being gravel, we moved along at a good pace for the rest of the day. Although it was a mine road, traffic was very light and without trucks so we had a tranquil cruise through some fantastic scenery. Late in the day we came across some ranchers working on their fence and we got to enjoy the same silly colloquialism we have met throughout our travels. When I told them we were going to El Fuerte, which is in the neighboring state of Sinaloa, they asked if I was scared.
“Of course not. Is there something I should be scared of?”
He made the universal machine gun gesture.
“Is the rest of Sonora safe though?”
“Oh yes, absolutely.”
Right. Duly noted.
It’s always the next place that’s scary and dangerous.
As we cycled off, “regresa vive! (return alive!)”
We decided to set up camp while we were still in the totally safe Sonora rather than the bullet-ridden warzone of Sinaloa. Well, the fading light made the decision for us. Fortunately the sun painted yet another brilliant swath of color across the sky just as we came across one of the only places we’d seen all day where the fence was not right against the road. We had a nice space in some bushes above an arroyo where we cooked dinner over a fire. We sat into the night watching storms pass by the neighboring mountain and just as we were thinking of heading to bed, the skies above us opened and drowned our fire for us. We slept beautifully under the patter of heavy drops on the tent fly.
It was a good thing we got our sleep because the next day would be a monster. We had somehow passed the turnoff I’d plotted, so we were into the unknown for distances, but luckily we’d picked up a rudimentary map from the tourist point in Álamos so we weren’t completely lost. We would also be crossing into the notorious Sinaloa where we would need all our energy to dodge ambushes from machine gun and machete wielding maniacs. Knowing how overblown dangers can be, we were not too worried.
As it turns out, we had plenty to fear.
The secondary road was in poor condition and undulated up and down steep grades that sucked our energy dry. The sun was searing and I’d lost my sunglasses again, so was reduced to squinting and the rare passing car filled my eyes with dust. I figured the road would improve past El Chinal because that town was printed in bold face on my map, and the road was shown as a thicker line. Nope. El Chinal was nothing more than a collection of homes and a pretty church.
The road actually managed to deteriorate, but on the plus side, the traffic was nonexistent. Only two cars and a donkey passed us in three hours. We followed a massive dam for several miles, but rather than provide relief, the road would tease us by following the grade for a bit before dipping back down a steep drop in FRONT of the dam so that it could return up an equally steep climb back up, again and again. On top, a headwind pushed us back. I had picked up some bug along the way, which was odd considering we’d made our own food that day. I was feeling worse and worse as the afternoon heat bore down. My stomach was tensing up and I felt I would vomit at any moment. It was the kind of nausea of the athlete who has pushed too hard. It kept coming in waves, each worse than the next. I thought I might have heat exhaustion or dehydration, but I’d kept up with the water and electrolytes and I didn’t have the typical piercing headache. In fact, the homemade sports drink that usually satiates an afternoon sapping made me feel even worse. The bouncing of rubble and surprise washboards shook my bones and rattled my mood. I became angry. I take this anger out on my bicycle like a stupid asshole. I bomb the hills and take the holes hard. It makes me feel better, but I know I’ll be even more furious if I break something.
By the time we reached the actual sluiceway of the dam about ten miles from town, my life was flashing before my eyes. I begged for pavement. I needed pavement, or at least a graded surface. There is a junction, so presumably the road should be better, but the road should have been better after El Chinal. Why the hell would they pave a road out to some dam?
Not only was the road paved, it was beautiful. Silky smooth and new and there was no additional traffic! As the sky deepened into the now familiar orange and purple, we climbed long gentle hills onward. On each climb we dreamed of the top opening into a wide-open valley with El Fuerte shining beacons of light at the bottom. Each ridge provided a view of the road sinking down to a stream and rising back up yet another hill, until… stuff!
We finally pulled into the central plaza of El Fuerte and slumped into a bench. Darkness descended and we stared up through the palm trees at the twinkling stars overhead, unable to move. It was 6:30. We had left our camp at 9:30. That netted us 42 miles. My energy was gone, the sickness was overtaking me and it required everything I had to get back on the bike to find a hotel. Brandy wanted to shop around, but that was impossible. So we paid too much (500 pesos), but it was nice and it was a bed. I spent the night rolling around in pain and running to the toilet to do horrible things you don’t want to hear about. I was still feeling ill the next day and couldn’t make the effort to find another place.
The ride was hard. Very hard. It was also completely worth it. I would recommend it in a second, although I would suggest not getting dog-ass sick.
Current status: We are in Mazatlán for Carnaval. Tomorrow we will take a bus back to Culiacán to get our bikes and make a quick ride down to the state of Nayarit where there are supposed to be some great little beach towns. We plan to spend a couple weeks not moving around much before catching a bus to Mexico City for a music festival.
Most of the towns along the Ruta Rio Sonora were built in the 17th Century and each has a beautiful plaza and cathedral. Here are some photos of a few of them. Click here to read about our experiences riding the Ruta.
Our first day of cycling into Mexico was so inspiring that I felt the need to make a photo post that night. The ride just continued to get better. We started our day out of Esqueda with a completely unnecessary hill up to get money at the only ATM in town. It was at a store in some sort of weird, almost gated suburb. I say, “almost gated” because they had a security guard at the entrance, but he was posted just past an intersection where you could have turned left and gotten into the neighborhood anyway. We had to go to this ATM because we were running dangerously low on cash, which can be quite a problem in rural Mexico where you are rarely able to use a card, and cash machines are few and far between. Luckily this town had one, albeit at the top of that aforementioned hill.
After scoring our cash, we continued on that wonderfully lightly traveled highway south for a few miles. We had been told of another route, the Ruta Rio Sonora, a bit further to the west, which follows the Sonora River and passes through about a dozen small and lovely villages. I had scouted on Google a connection to that route that crossed over a small mountain range, but it appeared from the satellite view that it was gravel. We have done this before, so we decided to make a go for it. I had been expecting to need to do a bit of sleuthing on the go to find the turnoff, but was pleased to find a huge sign for Bacoachi pointing down a paved road.
As we rolled up and down the grassy hills, we kept expecting the pavement to end at every corner, but it never did! It often deteriorated to a point that reigned in our downhill speeds, but it never lost the surface. The few cars we did encounter were courteous, as usual, although we were reminded of the dangers of the curvy mountain roads as we encountered this on our way up the pass:
The fun thing about passes is that you wind and wind and climb and climb. When you have a view, it gets way better way faster than seems reasonable. You keep going and going. It’s hard work and you take breaks and feel really cool whenever a car goes by and sees how badass you are. Then all of a sudden, you break through and are staring at a completely different country. Everything changes, your view, your effort, your temperature, and sometimes even the entire climate. Wow.
This pass was steep enough that we had to employ the switchback method, but it didn’t last too long and soon we were presented with a sweeping view of the Sonora Valley.
It seems we have again taken a pass in the correct direction as we coasted downhill for a blissful seven miles as the road swung around tight curves and ran ridgelines all the way down. The landscape had looked rather rumply from the terrain view and I had been worried that would mean a lot of useless ups and downs. I have to hand it to the engineers because they kept that road consistent, even if it meant a million tight curves. Never fear though, we’d get plenty of useless ups and downs a couple days hence.
We pulled into the sleepy plaza of Bacoachi and asked some older locals who were lounging around where we could find a hotel. This led to the typical questions, which led to an invitation for coffee, which soon led to us inside their home eating some hearty soup and chocolate flan. Soon Jaime took our visit as an excuse to bust out the accordion and play some tunes. Jaime and Elodie have been living in the United States for decades, but come down to this house Elodie’s parents built whenever possible.
After spending some time with them, Elodie took us over to the hotel. The rooms were big and lovely with handmade wood doors, windows and a roof from local trees, but it was a bit more expensive than the previous couple nights (like three bucks) and had no internet or heat. Elodie told us there was going to be a dance later and that she would be going. I also gathered that her daughter was in the band, which seemed odd because the daughter we met did not seem like the type to play in a band.
We happily took our showers and theeen … the beeeed … seeeeeemed … soooo … comf……
We awoke with a start and were horrified to find that something had happened to the sun causing it to vanish entirely. It was suddenly almost time to go to the party! We made some quick couscous (our secret cyclist fuel) using the coffee pot and followed the music to the party. We were obviously too early because there were about six people there sitting around awkwardly with insanely loud music. We decided to go back over to the house and see when they would be coming. It turns out that they were not going, and the daughter was not in the band, but rather the daughter was going to the party. There wasn’t really anyone around and it seemed like there was a bit of an argument going on. We were sitting at the table looking at each other. We were just getting up to go and Elodie told us, “no, no! Don’t go yet. I’m making hot chocolate,” so we sat down and right at that moment another couple came in. It was her sister who’d just arrived from LA and another fellow. We ended up talking with them for a couple hours while we waited for the kids to get ready for the dance. The guy, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, gave us some of the local mescal called bacanora, which was delicious (from what we’ve since gathered, we must have been very lucky to have tasted the only remotely palatable bacanora in the country). He was really excited about our trip and had a huge warm smile on his face by the time we left. I could tell we were doing something that touched his heart deeply, and it made me feel really good. Perhaps he’d dreamed of such a trip long ago and it made him happy to see it happening to someone firsthand, or was just a similar wandering type.
The three kids drove us to the dance, which was ridiculous considering it was about three blocks. To be fair though, they did go to the gas station to buy drinks first. The party was in full swing when we arrived. The place was really just a big room mostly taken up by the open dance space in front of the stage. There were a few tables around the outside that were filled with people who were sitting around watching the dancers. The band was on break when we arrived and it was funny that everyone kept the dance area completely clear and packed in around the outside. After the band started up again we stood around for quite a bit watching and being shy about dancing. We both like to dance, but have never really done much partner dancing, so it took us a bit to get going. Eventually we got out on the floor and had a ball. At first tons of people were bumping into us and I was thinking, ‘I must be doing something wrong. There must be a flow.’ We both realized at the same time that the entire group of dancers continuously moves in a circle, and we started looking slightly less foolish, and had a gas twirling around and laughing. We finally got out of there at 1 am because we were planning to, ya know, bike over a mountain the next day. At least we didn’t get hammered.
We had been invited over to breakfast the next morning and didn’t want to be rude and skip it, but were also worried about when we would be able to get going. We also had a really difficult time getting up thanks to the late night and the fact that the room was downright frigid, but went over nonetheless. Jaime was the only one up when we got there and he heated up some coffee while we talked more about his love of motorcycling and the work he has done in the States. Elodie came out and cooked us a delicious breakfast and eventually the kids shuffled to the table looking very much like they had closed the party. We did indeed get a late start and weren’t on the road until 11 am, but we had a wonderful visit and everyone saw us off with well wishes. They invited us over for New Years, but crossing mountains is always a one-way trip for us.
We had been told that it was flat for 40 minutes driving before it the big mountain comes up. Of course we all know that means you have several miles of ups and downs. They really weren’t all that bad and the scenery was very nice. It was also noticeably warmer than yesterday. At the base of the climb is a small town called Buena Vista. This was not at all a misnomer as it and some bucolic farm fields sat in a small valley of bubbly walled cliffs within the larger valley we’d been in all day. There really was a lot going on with the scenery around this particular hamlet, but we weren’t concerned with the scenery for long because the road got right to it. Without any foreplay, the road dropped steeply down to a bridge and then cranked right back up the other side. The shadows made it look less severe, so of course we didn’t downshift quickly enough as our speed tanked from 25 mph to 3. No matter, at least we wouldn’t have to think about shifting again for the next two hours as we carved our own switchbacks all the way up. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic so we were able to take over the road for the most part. Some more luck came our way when we happened to be on one of the rare straightaways when a truck came down carrying one of the widest loads I’ve ever seen. It was a massive cylinder that could have held a house. Memories of the wrecked truck from the previous day swam through my head and I was grateful not to have met it on the wrong side of the road at the bottom of a tight curve. We were false summited once, but the real summit could not be mistaken. We broke through at a junction with a small road to a TV tower. I had actually seen the tower road from below and had been horrified as I thought that even steeper piece of crap was the future of our road. The junction had incredible views of both valleys and we took that opportunity for a much needed break. The maddening part is that the same river flows through both valleys, which begs the question of why the hell the road goes over the mountain. The connecting section of the river must contain some insane topography. There was a bit more climbing before we saw with rejoice the sign that said, “Frene Con Motor,” which means “Brake with Motor.” The downhill was just as steep and we blazed down in a matter of minutes. At the bottom we had to ford what appeared to be a fairly deep river fraught with dangerous potholes. We watched a sedan go through and almost upend itself as it dropped into a massive pothole, but then the water turned out to be clear and the crossing was shallow and easy.
We were exhausted when we got to Arizpe and checked into the hotel at the edge of town. I just wanted to get dinner and crash, but this is the point where we realized that we only had 100 pesos left, and there would be no ATM before Baviácora, which we would not reach for two days. Yup, that meant more couscous. Of course, I didn’t feel like cooking outside, so I set my JetBoil in the bathroom so as not to fill the bedroom with fumes. I set the dry couscous on top of the toilet, which happened to have a slight, invisible slant. I caught it before the whole thing hit the floor, but there was still a massive spill of couscous all over the toilet seat and floor. Cleaning up thousands of granules of pasta in a bathroom without a broom was exactly how I wanted my evening to end. Well, we did have warm beds and good internet, and after a beautiful day of riding, I cannot complain.
We got up with the full intention of going to Aconchi where we’d heard there were some thermal baths and camping. We no longer had Google cycling directions since we passed into Mexico, so we had to resort to looking at the terrain view and kind of guessing what the road was doing in those parts. It appeared as though the bulk of the climbing had been done coming to Arizpe, and after that we’d be in a broad valley following the river downhill. While yes, we were trending downhill, there were a lot of, how shall I say, depressions in the road. You know the type; the terrain looks pretty flat, but then the road dives into a deep, narrow ravine with a waterway of little note, and then goes right back up the other side just as steeply. These are the ones where when going down, the surface of the road on the other side appears to be pointed straight at you. Well, today was pretty much just a continuous series of these. As soon as you crested one, you’d instantly see one or two more right in front of you. The scenery was nice, but damn, here were those useless ups and downs we’d avoided the other day.
As we were taking a break on this shockingly long half-mile flat, a couple SUVs with gringos whizzed by waving. The second one screeched to a halt and Gil and Izzie came out with big smiles on their faces. Gil said he’d seen us and knew he had to come talk to us. He had done his fair share of cycle touring, but mainly supported tours, so he was excited to talk to people doing what we were. We chatted for a bit and they invited us for a beer at the posada where they were staying in the next town. This sounded like a great idea to me. The town was only a couple miles away.
I looked at my odometer and saw that it was actually more like eight miles. Drat! We rode on ahead and found a couple more of our pals, those lovely ravines. Eventually it straightened out a bit and we had a nice ride and we triumphantly saw a sign for the posada indicating it was 2 km away. Yes! Almost there! No!! Two more steep hills!
We pulled into the beautiful Posada del Rio Sonora and Gil told us they were planning on getting us a room there and then taking us to the hot springs. Sweet! It was especially cool because the blog of the owner of the posada had actually been one of the sources I’d used to find info on the route, and I’d loved the look of the place, but it would have been way out of our price range.
The springs were some of the best we’ve ever seen. They had been developed long ago with the construction of a bunch of pools and complicated aqueduct network, but it had all been left outdoors and the combination of natural and built really worked. The water was a good temperature when we were there and had no odor. We unfortunately did not take any photos because we foolishly believed we’d be camping there later and could get better ones in improved light. Oh well, we passed a lovely evening with our new friends there.
Over dinner at the posada we met another buddy of theirs, Steven, a Mexican/US citizen who grew up near the border and now had a small off-grid farm just across the river where he was building using natural materials techniques.
Gil and Izzie took us out to see the farm the next morning and we immediately worked out with Steven that we would stay for a few days and give him a hand preparing the place for some new construction he’d be embarking on shortly.
The nice thing about only going two miles in one day is that you can leave whenever the hell you want, even mid-afternoon! The bumpy and sandy road to the farm was actually much easier than expected and we only had to push about a quarter of the way. There recently was a disaster at a mine upstream and millions of gallons of water and chemicals burst forth from a dam and flooded the area. The flood washed away some of the road, which doesn’t have a bridge, so the new tire tracks across the dry river were especially loose. People were talking about this event quite a bit here because it impacted them severely. They were still not drinking the water and the government was shipping in clean water for the villages along the Rio Sonora. There were lots of arguments about whether or not the drinking water sources had been contaminated and the villagers didn’t really trust anything at this point. The government was trying to wring as much money out of the mine as possible, so some people were saying that they were extending the period of hassle for the villagers. It was a big deal. Funny we didn’t hear anything about all this business in the US while being warned against getting our heads chopped off. Nope, didn’t hear anything about this really big, really real, right across the border event. An event that, ya know, just actually happened, as in for real, 30 miles from the border. In fact, some of the spill actually entered the headwaters of the San Pedro River, which flows north into Arizona and is an important migratory bird corridor.
The dirt road was a perfect country road through farms, mud brick houses and along fence lines. It’s one of those little roads that make you feel like you’re in some other century, or a book about hairy-footed little people. The village of Banámichi looked particularly lovely up on its little hill with the white church tower poking above palm trees and low white buildings. Steven’s property has a little irrigation canal running through a small woodlot on the end, and his first mud brick building sits with a view of the village in the distance over a field of dried corn stalks.
We spent two full days on the farm helping out. We didn’t actually do any working of the land, but I do recall a lot of sanding of some shelves he’d had milled from a black walnut limb from his woodlot. We also moved a lot of stuff around.
In the evenings we’d sit and watch the bird life circling around doing what they do. There was one really annoying squawky species that was pretty prevalent. I don’t think it was a parrot, but it was close in sound. My favorite was the vermillion flycatcher who sat on top of a nearby bush and would dart to and fro catching bugs. Check out this little beauty: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_of_Mexico#mediaviewer/File:Vermilion_Flycatcher.jpg
We took a different gravel road away from the farm and passed through a village that clearly didn’t see too many touring cyclists, from the looks on the faces of the people. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful and without surprise as we were riding on roads we’d already traversed in krrs.
Most of the towns along the Ruta Rio Sonora were built in the 17th Century and hadn’t grown significantly since. They all had a nice central plaza and a large cathedral surrounded by colorful buildings lining the narrow streets. Our short day gave us plenty of time to arrive in Baviácora and have a nice stroll around.
The last several miles on our little side highway were uneventful and filled with more beautiful valley scenery. We rejoined the highway we’d left after Esqueda and began climbing into a little set of mountains. The grades were much more manageable on the more major road and the traffic luckily had not picked up too badly. We pulled into Ures in mid-afternoon and were starving for a taqueria. Ures is a bit larger than the other towns we’d gone through and there were plenty of people on the streets. We were also getting a lot of cheers and encouragement. The main square was really beautiful with lots of big trees. We went there to see if we could find a restaurant. Alas, there was none, but we did have several groups of people come up to talk to us about the trip, including three teenage girls who wanted to take their pictures with us.
After finding our tacos we had to decide what to do about lodging. Brandy wanted to take a chunk out of the 50 miles we had left to Hermosillo and camp someplace. I was a bit reluctant because the sun would be going down in front of us, but mainly because it would be cold and I have been spoiled by all the hotels we’ve been in.
As we were wandering around some non-descript residential neighborhood where supposedly there was a hotel, some guy came running out of his house to stop us. He was very excited and wanted to see our bikes and show us his huge courtyard filled with fruit and nut trees. We left with our arms loaded with citrus, but that wasn’t enough, German was going to take us to a hotel and show us around town. We checked into the hotel, but declined to remove our gear because we don’t like to unload much when we stay in hotels so we can make a quicker exit in the morning. That, and we look way more cool cycling around town fully loaded.
Ures is a nice little town filled with colorful buildings and just enough crumbling ones to give good contrast to the rest. German knows everyone and we got tons of waves and shouts of encouragement. He even chased down a guy on a motorbike who goes around selling his sweet breads and bought us empanadas de panocha. Panocha is this thick, sweet substance made from sugar cane in Ures. Incidentally, it is also a slang term for vagina, at least in Sonora, which provides the obvious joke, “would you like some panocha? Of course!” As we ate the breads at his house he told us much about the sweets of Ures and then took us to a candy shop to show them to us. Naturally we bought some jamoncillo, which are local candies somewhat similar to maple syrup candies, but smoother and a bit less sweet.
Our ride out of Ures the next day was fueled by a strong tailwind and general downhill grades. We had one more little mountain range to cross that seemed to go on and on, but the grades were better on this larger road, so we still managed to make great time.
Our Warm Showers/CS host, Daniel (I’d actually conversed with him separately on both) and another WS member, Rocio met us just as the road was starting to get busy on the outskirts of town. We had some delicious carne con chile burros which promised massive heartburn, but failed to deliver.
As soon as we walked in the door of his place, we were presented with plates of food prepared by his mother. After relaxing for a bit we somehow still had the energy to go out to a CS meet up at a coffee shop. Here is where I met my match for Spanish. There were about 12 local CSers all in a group speaking rapid Spanish. I can usually hold a somewhat intelligible conversation with one or two people, but a group is still beyond me. Fueled by caffeine, we all went downtown to a cool little bar called Verbana. It has three rooms. There is a small front room with some tables (actually, they all had some tables). Our group took over half of the room. There is a middle room with a band. The room is small, so the band was basically standing up against the wall and you had to walk right by them to go to the bathroom or the large rear room where smoking was permitted. There is a single bar that was accessible from each room. I remember this type of bar from lots of other countries we’ve visited, so the layout really put me in a mood of nostalgia for travel in general. The band was great. They were doing a lot of covers, including some Manu Chao, but naturally I knew very few of the songs they played. My favorite part though was that they had a trombone, which is pretty much my favorite instrument. Oh, and the beer was about $3 for 1.2 L bottles (caguamas). We had come to the end of the Ruta Rio Sonora. Hanging out in that bar drinking beer with our new friends centered me in this place of travel and everything felt perfect.
We have several photos of the many beautiful cathedrals of the Ruta Rio Sonora. For the sake of page loading speeds, they are included in a separate post here: http://www.rudimentsofgruel.com/churches-of-la-ruta-rio-sonora/
Mexico Summary: Agua Prieta to Hermosillo
Miles cycled: 258.7
Cycling days: 8 (including the 1.5-mile day to the farm)
Days off: 2
Initial impressions of Mexico: Fantastico!
Wow! Our first day riding in Mexico, after being benched by a windstorm on Christmas was simply fantastic. We were expecting 10-20 mph crosswinds, but all the wind was way up high where the low hanging clouds were racing by just above the peaks of the surrounding mountains. The moving clouds entertained us all day long with a continuing display of shadows and sun and rain spots. It may have been chilly, we may have gotten wet, and we might even have gotten a bit of hail, but the incredible scenery and downhill riding more than made up for it. The dozens of waves from the friendly Mexican drivers were a warm welcome to the country, and the courtesy and caution of the drivers (especially the semis) catapulted them into the upper echelon of the driver quality list. The enthusiastic fist pumping we got from a semi driver as we were going over a speed bump together was simply over the top awesome. Ending the day in a $16 warm, comfortable hotel with WiFi in a cute and colorful town was icing on the cake. These pictures won’t do justice to the beauty we experienced today, but they can give a taste.