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.