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A slight overview of the ride through Mexico on bicycle

posted Feb 17, 2011, 4:32 PM by Matthew Gorzlancyk   [ updated Aug 21, 2012, 1:23 PM ]

Entering Mexico I was quite excited to know that I would now be spending the next year of my life in Latin America. The satisfaction that washed over me was the knowing that I would now be forced to deal with new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations, on a daily basis. On October 24th, 2010, Chris, Reto and I crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana. Mexico would turn out to be a wonderful and very interesting way to spend the next few months.

 We were picked up just beyond the border by Alejandro Camarena, the uncle of my close friend Alexa Camarena. He brought a pickup truck to meet us just beyond the border and took us to his family’s home. We were able to spend a very comfortable few days with him and his wife Mirella. I don’t think there could have been a better way to encounter Mexico, especially for me, and my lacking Spanish language skills. Alejandro made it very easy to understand him with his very animated personality. It is amazing how gestures and expressions can aid one in understanding the message another is trying to convey.

 After our time in TJ we began our tour down the Baja peninsula. Although this route brought with it very hot and sunny conditions and very tight roads, it turned out to be quite a smooth ride. We were able to do a bit of wild camping mixed with hotels and really, had very few problems along the way. The only exceptions to the easy ride down the Baja were a poor experience with a hotel owner in Catavina and a half-full beer can tossed out of a car window at Chris one day while we were riding. We also mistakenly stayed in a whorehouse one night. It was not quite apparent when we showed up that the hotel was for quickies, but as the night progressed we noticed that rooms were being used over and over with just a little sweep and a blanket re-tuck by the owner. This was a bit unpleasant, but we just barricaded the door of which there was no key or lock for, and slept in our sleeping bags so little critters couldn’t grab a hold of us.

 We closed the tour of the Baja in La Paz where we took a few days on the beach. We were aided in finding a place to crash by a Couchsurfing host named Miguel who setup a spot behind a restaurant that we could stay at. All we were responsible for taking care of was a few packs of cigarettes and Mezcal for the 5 index-fingered night watchman who looked after us. It was really a nice setup and we definitely needed the time to rest after the difficult and physically trying push through desert.

 **Baja California: Beautiful desert region, but with tons of garbage along the roadside. If you look beyond this, it is really a great place. Catavina sucks. Horrible guy owns both hotels in town. Plenty of wild camping available on the Baja, but watch for poopie toilet paper and random piles of such material, just ask Chris (no place is off-limits, there are poops all over).  Truck drivers on the Baja rock! They are very respectful of cyclists and give you a wide berth when they can. Playa Tecolote in La Paz is beautiful. Say hi to Manuel if you visit. He lives in a van with his dogs and has 5 index fingers (He is hard to miss). Also, along the Baja you should ask where to swim. Sometimes waste is dumped into the ocean, and like Reto experienced, you might regret just jumping in. Watch for whorehouses (if the price is surprisingly cheap, take a close look at the rooms and current clientele).

 From La Paz we headed to Mazatlan by way of the ferry. This was an experience in itself. I think it took about 16 hours. It was supposed to take 12 hours, but I guess they had engine trouble or something. Overnight Reto, Chris and I slept on the deck with our mats and sleeping bags. There was the option for rooms, which were expensive, or to sleep on chairs inside, but we thought the room with the reclining chairs would turn out to be a bit unpleasant. We were correct in our assumptions about sleeping inside. When we awoke and went down for the morning toilet we saw that apparently there had been a party on board that must have made everyone who drank sick. There were puddles of vomit in every direction. Not just in the hallways or the bar, but in the seating room as well. The deck choice turned out to be a good one. We all woke up a little wet, but we were even able to cook coffee with a camp stove the next morning and watch the sunrise.

 So we made it to Mazatlan by mid-day and got back on the road. Stayed in our first Auto Hotel and found what these places are used for. If you are curious as to what this means, you can have a look at my photo album (There are some interesting television channels, windows to the shower, speakers in the walls, Kleenex dispensers next to the bed, and sometimes even better options in these hotels). There would be more than one of these we would have the ‘pleasure’ of staying in along the way, but just in case you are traveling through and are ever curious at any time whether to stay at one, now you know.

 From Mazatlan to Durango we crossed the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. This was one of the greatest parts of the Mexico stage in the tour. The views, the climbs, the foliage, and the people all made this a very special time. Going from the desert to the forest was fantastic. We were cycling at altitudes of 2,000 to 2,800 meters and it was absolutely exhilarating. Durango turned out to be a nice city and gave us a first impression of the Spanish colonial feel, but as we moved on to Zacatecas and Guanajuato the beauty increased ten-fold.

 Zacatecas was fantastic. We found a nice hostel, toured a mine, walked the city, and enjoyed some time with a nice Swiss couple that were traveling the Pan-American Highway route in an SUV. This city is one of the most beautiful of the cities we saw in Mexico, and in my opinion, only second to Guanajuato. If you ever plan to visit the interior of Mexico, these two cities are a must, especially if you have interest in modern Mexican history.

 So we shot from Zacatecas to Guanajuato, where we visited the Alhondiga de Granaditas, cycled the tunnels, and enjoyed a couple of delicious local snacks.  A very important location in regards to Mexican Independence, this city is absolutely gorgeous. There is an elaborate tunnel system running below the city, so the historic center has very low vehicle traffic. For a place to relax and learn a little bit about how Mexico achieved independence and how the movement began, Guanajuato is the place to visit.

 From Guanajuato we made our way to Guadalajara where we met up with Jorge and Berta Villasenor, the Uncle and Aunt of my friend Alexa. We were welcomed to Guadalajara with open-arms by the Villasenors and by our friends at the Casa Ciclista. Here we enjoyed some of Berta’s wonderful cooking, fantastic accommodations at both the Casa Ciclista and the home of the Villasenors, all the help we needed in getting Reto prepared for his flight back home, and I even learned a few things about maintaining my bicycle with Bernardo at the Casa Ciclista.

 Guadalajara really was one of my favorite parts of Mexico. The city is beautiful and much more easily navigable than Mexico City. I think our hosts really provided us with the best tour and look at Guadalajara we could have been given. We were treated wonderfully and were given all the support we needed at this juncture. From Guadalajara, Reto, Chris and I took a bus to Mexico City where we toured the historic center, visited Teotihuacan, toured the Government Palace, the Museum of Anthropology, and meandered the streets of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

 Chris and I would miss our pal Reto, but we would soon be meeting our new tour buddies Martin and Isa back in Guadalajara within the next couple of weeks. After Reto got on his plane, Chris and I bought bus tickets for the same night and made our way back to Guadalajara. The bus was a very comical experience though. We had bought tickets for the front two seats of the bus for there was supposed to be more space. Unfortunately for the driver, there was no barrier between him and us. We got on the bus, kicked of our shoes, had the misfortune of viewing the movie ‘Twilight’, and fell asleep. When we awoke, the bus was parking and we were to get off. Chris and I began to put our shoes back on right away, and as we were doing this, the driver turned around, gave us a mean face, and told us in Spanish that, “If you ever plan to ride with me again, you better keep your shoes on.” When I heard this I was a bit tired and I asked Chris if he had actually said this. Chris told me he was unsure, but he thought so. Well, to clarify, the driver turned around again and repeated himself! I died laughing over this situation. The poor guy had been sniffing our feet the whole ride and I am sure they were bad. When traveling by bicycle you begin to become accustomed to your stink, but others still notice apparently. This was the best morning wake-up in awhile. We thanked him, he mean-mugged us, and we made our way back to the Casa Ciclista.

 I flew back home to Minneapolis, MN and Plover, WI during the holidays so I could spend time with a few friends and my family. It was very relaxing and quite fun to see Paul, the Camarena’s, my gang of buddies, and most importantly, my family. Thank you everybody for making my trip back home so nice. It was great to see everybody. See you again in a year or something… Also, if anybody sees Jakie the Cobrasnakie, give him an ear scratch for me.

 When I returned to Guadalajara, Chris, Ernesto and Donna picked me up at the airport. It was very difficult to head back to Mexico after seeing so many great people and having it so easy back home, but Chris, Ernesto and Donna, the Villasenors, and my buddies at the Casa Ciclista helped me to regain the right attitude for the road ahead. I am a very fortunate man to have such great friends.

 When Martin and Isa arrived before New Year’s we got our plans in order, fixed up my bike, and got ready for the new beginning on the 2nd of January. We had a farewell dinner with the Villasenors, and Bernardo lead us out of Guadalajara the following day during Guadalajara’s ‘Recreactiva’ weekly event (a very special event where 80km’s of roadway are closed to car traffic and open for cyclists and pedestrians only. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Adults and children come out every Sunday and actively enjoy a day off with physical activity).

 Our first planned destination reached was Angangeo, MX. This was chosen due to the Monarch butterfly migration that takes place here. What a beautiful experience. It was like being by a lake in Wisconsin in the summer, only the mosquitoes were Monarchs! We had a very nice time (photos can be found in my latest Mexico album).

 From here Isa, Martin, Chris and I would be separated. Chris and I continued on, did some great camping along the way (a jail cell, a garden, we were welcomed into a home in Ocoyoacac, stayed with Armando from Tamazulapam in a hotel he sponsored for us, and even a horse barn where the horses joined us in farting throughout the night). We ended up getting in contact with Martin and Isa and met back up with them in Oaxaca, MX at the home of Gaby and John (two wonderful cyclists both Chris and I had met at different points of our U.S. coastal tour. These two rode on recumbents created by John and toured from Canada to the U.S.-Mexico border. An adventurous and amazing couple, these two welcomed us to stay with them upon our arrival in Oaxaca). We had a great time with John and Gaby. We relaxed, visited the city (which is absolutely beautiful), played some ping-pong, played with the dogs, and enjoyed first-class accommodations and delicious food at their home. ***It even turns out that Gaby and John will be visiting John’s family in Colombia in April, so we may even get to hang with them again in Bogota!! –Thanks again guys. I can’t wait to see you two again!

 The ride from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas turned out to be a bit of a bear. It was fun and beautiful, we camped in some great locations, behind a military control post, under mango trees, and at the home of Isai and his family in Chiapa de Corso, but the riding was tough. When we finally made it to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chris and I were exhausted. We got a hotel and did some much-needed relaxing there. San Cristobal is a very nice city, but not the best thing Chiapas, MX has to offer. We were able to fully experience the best part in days to come.

 From San Cristobal de las Casas, Chris and I were headed for the Cascadas de Aguas Azules. Dipping from the higher elevation of San Cristobal, we slowly descended into the jungle. What a fantastic experience. The colors, birds, insects, and foliage changed so quickly it was absolutely exhilarating. We camped at a very cool cooperative housing location on a river, and then pushed down to Agua Azul the following day. We arrived by the waterfalls a little late in the day and began looking for options as to camping or hotels so we could call it a day. We took a look at a couple hotels and ended up staying with some other travelers.

 We ended up having a beer with them and discussing our adventures and plans for our respective trips. These two gals had been on many travels over the previous years and were able to give us advice as to Central and South America, for they had done much traveling in these areas. We all crashed a bit early with plans to swim in the beautiful lagoons at the Cascadas de Aguas Azules the next morning.

 We awoke, drank coffee, and headed for the waterfalls. It was a fantastic day and the water felt amazing. Light blue transparent water, a rope to swing on into the water, and eventually the sun even came out and illuminated the whole scene. After a bit of swimming we all started to head downstream to find a new swim spot and take some photos. As we were walking down the way a couple of guys informed us that we would not be able to leave the park anymore due to an altercation and dispute concerning the EZLN toll station (located at the only entrance to the city and park). Apparently there were some issues as to who was in control of this booth and its proceeds, so a fight was breaking out involving a large group of people. We heard that trees were being cut down on the only road leading in to or out of the park.

 Well, this did not really bother us much. All this really meant was that we would have the park to ourselves. Waterfalls and beautiful lagoons to enjoy. We took full advantage of the opportunity and really enjoyed the day. We didn’t find out until later that night that it was supposedly becoming a bit more serious and that there were loads of police trying to settle the matter up on the road.

 In the evening we did some food shopping, cooked with our friends, and enjoyed the company of a few other tourists who were stranded at the park like we were. Eventually we were able to sleep after being stirred a couple of times by police driving by and hearing voices outside. Nothing happened that night by our hotel, so we all slept quite well.

 We got up in the morning and made coffee as Chris and I always do (Coffee really is the best cyclist fuel ever). We had been told the night before that we would probably be able to leave the park on this morning, so we just kind of went about cleaning up and slowly packed up our things. We heard a helicopter quite low and went out to look at it, but we all sort of assumed it was a news helicopter or something. Shortly after putting the coffee stuff away we had a knock on our door. There were a number of people standing outside all telling us it was time to go and that a helicopter was waiting for us. We were informed that a man was killed in the fighting the night before and the government wanted us on the helicopter for our safety. Well, a helicopter ride out of Agua Azul, especially considering the treacherous uphill Chris and I would have had, we were not disappointed with this. We all packed our stuff and Chris and I trailed the very excited girls out toward the helicopter.

 When we arrived at the helicopter we were informed that another one would take our bikes to Palenque, where the airport was located (Not bad, this was Chris and my next destination anyway). We got in the helicopter and headed on. When we got to the airport there were journalists taking photos and interviewing us once we had received our bicycles, bags, and such. After a little while we found out that the Chiapas government wanted us to go to the capital, Tuxtla-Gutierrez (of which Chris and I had already cycled through), in the governor’s plane, and we were going to be able to meet the governor. Well, we never met the governor, but we did have more interviews, some free food, and were checked by a little medical crew as to our health and such. After our ‘processing’ we were finally taken to a five-star hotel by the Director of Public Relations, Pedro E. Cancino Perez. He was really a very nice gentleman who seemed very concerned as to our well being following what the Chiapas government had seemed to consider a dangerous situation, especially for tourism in general.

 At the Camino Real hotel Pedro took us out for some drinks, wonderful dinner, and even set us up with his niece who took us out to a fun little bar down the street. It was great. A nice room, filet mignon, wine, beer, tequila, our new friends, and an adventure that would probably in all likelihood, never happen to any of us again. After the night of drinking we four and a German gentleman, Dieter, who had also been flown with us to Tuxtla, had a nice breakfast and were picked up for a private boat tour of the canyon in Chiapa de Corso. This was quite nice and we were treated quite well throughout the day. We returned to the hotel and crashed back out.

 The following day we enjoyed one last five-star hotel buffet and Chris, Dieter and I were taken, along with the girls, to the airport to be flown back to Palenque. The girls were headed to San Cristobal in a private car, for this was their next planned destination. We said farewell to Catalina and Josephina and promised to see them again in Buenos Aires at the end of our tour. We then jumped on into our private little plane. 

 Chris and I then visited Palenque the following day, February 6th, and even made it into the city just in time for the Green Bay Packer – Pittsburgh Steelers Superbowl. I viewed this terrific celebration of the superiority of the Dom Caper-style defense, and well-tuned Packer offense on a small television set in a little hole-in-the-wall hotel. Man was it great to see the Pack put Roethlisberger, Palomalu, and the “pinche” Steelers down. GO PACK GO!

 We then got back on the road, and with a bit of rain on the way, we made it through the jungle to Frontera Corozal and crossed the Mexico-Guatemala border by boat to Technica, Guatemala. It was hard to leave Mexico, for it had really been a wonderful ride, but it was time to push on and see what Central America had in store for us.

 Mexico is an amazing country. There are many ecosystems and changes as you traverse the roads through this great country. We only touched a small portion of what Mexico has to offer. If you ever have the chance, go and see some of these places. Yeah, there is a drug war, and yes, there are murders, but these very rarely touch tourists. All you need to do is travel safely and use common sense to make it through. If people can pass through Mexico on a bike, then I am pretty sure a bus or a plane to a resort would work just fine. To stay safe, don’t look flashy, don’t buy drugs or get wasted and wander the streets at night. If you can follow these guidelines and avoid border cities, Mexico is a great country and very easy for most to travel. I love it and plan on coming back over and over again in coming years.

 **What I have written here is only a minor look at the experiences I have had here. The hospitality and warmth you receive from the people in Mexico is unsurpassed by anywhere I have ever been. If anybody ever has questions as to any place I visited along the way, just shoot me an email and I would be glad to pass on some advice and help as much as I can.

 Thanks again everyone who helped to make our tour a success in Mexico. I don’t think I could ever really tell you how all much I appreciate the help and the wonderful experiences along the way, but maybe one day we will see each other again. Take care all. Muchas gracias por todos!