Oaxaca City was my first taste of colonial Mexico; stone streets, flowers in bloom, grand old buildings dappled in shade with large windows and doorways to catch the breeze. Street food is abundant, aromatic and laden with thick cuts of that good Oaxaca quesillo.
Despite it being the largest city in Oaxaca State, Ben and I found ourselves trundling along dirt roads within half an hour of departing the centre. Old gents in collared shirts, trousers and wide brimmed hats cycled serenely past us, a gentle nod of recognition for fellow cyclists.
Criss-crossing trails provided ample opportunity for explorations (getting lost) and soon we were on a goat track that eventually became a drainage channel.
Although Oaxaca City is renowned for its opulent churches, most of the small towns throughout the state (and country) are graced with their own impressive (excessive?) churches that dwarf every other structure in the region.
At the Ex-convent of Santo Domingo, I was told off by an irate warden for bringing my bicycle too close. He didn’t seem to mind the dogs who used the church as their personal lounge.
The landscape opened up into undulating arid hills of green and gold, the trees conceded their territory to hordes of cacti. Stalls and stores dotted the landscape, offering locally produced mezcal at bargain prices. After a few gulps, my belly was warm, the heat waves mesmerising and the whole scene seemed to shimmer.
I found a trail built on the remains of a 19th Century rail line and flew through the hills as the cutaways and embankments rose and fell around me like waves.
At Santa Cruz de Nuevo I found a town of charming houses built from stone, apparently due to the lack of trees. As I showered in the public bathrooms in the main square, town folk were called to church by the ear-splitting crack of fireworks shot high into the air.
Clouds had filled the sky and each firework was answered by a long, rumbling growl of thunder that felt as though some heavenly presence was saying “knock it off”.
I skipped the service but was invited into a home to share the family dinner of soup and goat tacos. For dessert I was given delicious red pitayo (cactus fruit) and several more were stuffed into a bag for the next day.
The city of Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza was a one day push from this little hamlet, and each valley that I passed through increased in urbanisation from cactus bowl, to wide agricultural plain to sprawling industrial malaise.
Puebla is linked to Mexico city by a sinuous mountain pass between the Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl volcanoes, known as Paso de Cortes. Hernan Cortes and his men marched this route in 1519 and went on to capture emperor Moctezuma II and destroy the Aztec empire.
I’m not much for conquests, but I did enjoy the quiet pine forest and the occasional puff of volcanic cloud as Popocatepetl said hello.
In Mexico City we saw Frida’s house and the Luchadores and were both pickpocketed on the metro.
In the moment of entry into the train, a group of thieves surrounded and pressed up against us, pinning our arms in place. As soon as we could move them again, our phones were long gone.
Par for the course in a city of twenty-one million people I guess, and kudos to them for getting both of us at the same time. Robbery number three for Ben and four for me.
Leaving Distrito Federal by bicycle was a certain type of nightmare. Going north involved forty kilometres of chaotic traffic and ragged nerves, prolonged by the need to regularly stop and check my map. It was an immense relief to finally emerge into agricultural land and be able to moo at cows once again.
Spending time in a big city sometimes fills me with the urge to pull long days in the saddle and to seek empty spaces. Big sky was in ample supply and the rugged geological features were easy on the eyes.
On a whim I rode almost hundred miles to San Pedro de los Pozos and found a town in celebration. It was the annual fiesta and the whole pueblo was in the streets, eating, chatting and drinking micheladas. I opted for the smallest sized michelada and the Senora emptied a one litre bottle of beer into my cup.
The Señor of the place I camped had given me a bottle of water and in the morning I took a big mouthful before realising that something wasn’t quite right. I spat most of the liquid out and let my host know that I didn’t think it was water in the bottle. He was horrified but told me that I shouldn’t drink water bottles if the seal is broken.
I think an equally good solution is to not put mineral turpentine into water bottles, store that with your regular water bottles and then give that to an unsuspecting bicycle tourist.
I was well received (even spoiled) on the Mexican Altiplano during my stays with Alberto in San Luis Potosi, in Fransisco’s rooftop apartment in Zacatecas, the town theatre in Guadalupe Trujillo, and a brand new (never used) bedroom in Mesillas.
Idle chit-chat revealed that many people I met had lived in the USA for years, but I never asked whether they decided to leave or were removed. In Salinas Hidalgo, watermelon sellers gave me a huge plate of the juiciest sandia and in Guadalupe Trujillo, the shopkeeper gave me a briny, pickled white piece of flesh.
“Tripe?” I enquired.
“No!” he said looking offended. “Pig skin!”
I sat at the bar of the 110 year old cantina ‘Quince Letras’ in Zacatecas and my neighbour immediately sent one of the bartenders out for cheese and olives. He told me he that his preferred style of drinking was a beer backed by a large chupito of mezcal and he indulged me in several of these as the cantina took on an unfocused appearance.
Between Zacatecas and Durango, the quiet roads snaked through magnificent country and old men in jeans and cowboy hats stood in the shade by tiendas or plodded past on horses.
The heat and dryness were severe; I squinted against the glare and took little satisfaction in the hot water I gulped down.
In Mesillas, it was Manuel and Petra who let me stay in the new room that had never been used. In this quiet town of 500 people, Manuel was expanding his home and make more rooms in anticipation of the Coleaderos (rodeos) that bring flocks of people to town.
He lamented over the many drunks and non-working people in his town and in Mexico generally. It was true that throughout Mexico I had seen young men drinking beer at strange morning hours and Manuel explained that they receive money from relatives or friends in the US and spend it on beer and mezcal.
Many more people complained to me about delinquency, theft and attacks on the roads. I have nothing to say on the causes or actual scale of the problem, but it certainly was disheartening to meet so many people who had such a grim outlook on their own people and country.
I hit 25,000km, left the altiplano across the Sierra Madre Occidental, descended to the port town of Mazatlan and took a ferry to La Paz, Baja California Sur.
The gringo sphere of influence was immediately apparent in the huge hotels, English language signs and coach-sized RVs towing trailers double-loaded with a car and an additional golf buggy, motorbike or boat.
Away from the towns, the peninsula felt very wild, remote and free of people. Barren landscapes of dry earth and cacti plunge into the calm, turquoise waters of the Gulf of California and the colder, moody Pacific.
On a stretch of highway I approached a broken down car and slowed down to chat with the young guy hailing me over. He asked if he could use my phone to ring the next town but I felt like something was off.
It was strange that he was hailing over a foreign cycle tourist for a phone, but ignoring the stream of local cars passing by who could give him their phone, lift to town or jumpstart the battery that had been removed and placed on the roof.
Perhaps unkindly, I said no and cycled away, watching him in my mirror as he continued to ignore the vehicles driving by.
When I met up with Ben and Tanguy from France later in the day, they said that this same guy had asked each of them for their phones too but neither of them had SIM cards. I’m sure some kind of hustle was underway, but I had no idea what he intended to do.
A flashy marina allowed us to come in and use their new showers before we camped on a secluded beach. At sunset, the American boat owners gathered around the marina shop and sung sea songs and their own interpretation of some classics.
A real highlight was an out-of-tune cover of Eric Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’ with the words changed to describe a pleasant barbecue.
Tanguy and I headed north together and camped on a beautiful beach along with a southbound German cyclist and an American marine biologist. The cyclist told us that he had not expected to be in Mexico so early but had been stopped in Texas and found with a tiny amount of weed in his belongings.
He was taken into custody, placed in an immigration camp, sent to immigration court and deported to Mexico. Not the ideal way to start your Americas cycling trip, but certainly an interesting experience.
In the mining town of Santa Rosalia, we found an iron church designed by Gustave Eiffel that had been imported from Belgium in 1897 and erected in Baja California.
The bomberos let us stay with them, but unfortunately not in their air-conditioned quarters. Tanguy tried to escape the oppressive heat by sleeping outside, but was repeatedly disturbed by inquisitive children and dogs.
After a rough night of sleep, we decided to have a small ride to the oasis of San Ignacio and have a chill afternoon of fish tacos, prawns and ceviche.
A French couple had arrived in the town a few years before with their sick dog but could not find anyone to help or give them a lift. Othon, the owner of the fish taco shop, bought penicillin from the pharmacy and nursed the dog back to health over a few days while the couple stayed in his house.
They were so thankful, that they stayed on to help develop the family home into a casa de ciclistas. Now cyclists from all over the world stay here for a few dollars which provides the family with a second source of income.
Tanguy hitchhiked north after Guerrero Negro and I pedalled off alone into the desert of giant Saguaros.
For the most part, highway 1 in Baja California is a narrow two lane strip with no shoulder. Even though I was being vigilant, regularly checking the road behind me, there had still been a few vehicles that had passed just a little too close for comfort.
In the afternoon, I watched my mirror as a double-semi trailer approached from behind. Despite the absence of any other vehicles on the road, I looked with increasing anxiety as this truck barrelled towards me and made no lateral movement to avoid a collision.
At the last moment, the driver blasted his horn and I swung off the road as he roared past with a smaller gap than the width of my bicycle.
A couple of hours later, I was still a bit rattled when I saw another truck approaching in my mirror. This time there was traffic in the other lane and I got ready to swing off the steep embankment as the truck bore down on me.
Maybe because of the other cars, maybe because he didn’t want my blood on the front of the truck, the driver slowed down but stayed right on my rear wheel. When he could pass, he pulled up beside me and I looked through the open window to see three drunk men yelling and abusing me.
I faced forward and ignored them until I felt something hard and heavy hit me in the neck. I immediately starting swearing in Spanish and English and they swore right back, looking like they wanted to fight or run their truck into me.
Thankfully they decided to keep going and we flipped the bird at each other as they drove away.
Feeling very un-groovy, I stopped at the tiny restaurant at the next intersection and decided to camp in the fenced off lot across the road.
I returned to the restaurant in the morning feeling much better, not allowing dickheads to affect my mood. The senora told me that a southbound truck driver had arrived the previous night with a badly cut up face and head. Apparently the same truck that abused me had thrown a glass bottle at this guy and it (or the windscreen) had smashed on his head.
I felt very lucky that the bottle aimed at me had just bounced off.
Within a day’s cycling in Baja California, the temperature and weather can change dramatically. The muggy gulf coast gives way to the scorching dry central deserts and then to cool and misty mountains near the pacific coast. After riding through temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade, it was a surprising to find myself engulfed in fog, shivering with low visibility.
In Ensenada, a Spanish motorcyclist explained that a common type of robbery Latin America is for people to wait on the side of the road with a broken vehicle and ask to use your phone. They then make a call to your parents or relative and demand a money transfer to an account and threaten to kill the person who gave them the phone.
I’m still unsure if this was the plan of the man we saw further south, but he would have had a difficult time trying to speak English to anyone in my phone.
From Ensenada it was a two-day ride through Baja wine country to Tecate, bringing an end to almost 21 months in Latin America.
Meandering along a dirt road near a vineyard, I heard a loud “Wooo” from a pickup in front of me and looked to see an American girl standing up out of the car window, shirt pulled up to her neck, tits out in the afternoon sun.
I was ready for America.
While looking for a place to camp on my penultimate night, I rolled past a picturesque church and the gringo gardener came over to chat.
Man: Do you need anything? Water? Where are you coming from? What’s your name?
T: Tom, from Australia
M: Wow they have a lot of great Hillsong there. Do you know the number one song in the world right now is “What a beautiful name”? You know, not 5 minutes ago I was thinking I should visit Australia. What’s your name?
T: Tom, yea, I haven’t ever checked it out.
M: Really? Let me ask you this; are you a Christian?
M: What? No Religion?
M: Well I was going to say “Que Dios te bendiga” but now you are going to have to go alone. You know a painting has a painter, this building (gesturing to the church) has a builder, the world, this creation (gesturing around him) has a creator. This little ant here has a nervous system, it can smell! Life is going to pass you by, why risk being wrong? I want you to try this; call out to your God, test him. Tell him “if you’re there God, show me!” What’s your name?
T: Tom, haha yea ok, I’ll try that.
It was the strangest mix of veiled threat, intelligent design and even a cheeky Pascal’s wager. Lord knows what prayers he said that night for this doubting Thomas. I decided staying with bomberos would allow for a more relaxed night.
Ben bussed to Tecate and we spent our last day in Mexico with our host Raul. We visited an old, formerly-secret narco house in a beautiful landscape of boulders and in the evening enjoyed the town’s annual fiesta with food, beer, live music and BB gun shooting.
On the morning of the third of July, we spent our last pesos at the border Oxxo, rolled into immigrations and we were granted access through the wall and into California.