A brief account of cycling in Mexico

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Route: Mérida – Uxmal – Mérida – (by air) Tuxtla – Chiapa de Corzo – Sumidero Gorge – San Cristóbal – Comitán – Lagunas de Montebello – San Cristóbal – Palenque – (by coach and plane) Mérida – (by coach) Valladolid – Chitzen Itzá – Mérida.

It had to happen, sooner or later, that we’d arrive in a strange country in the middle of the night and our bikes would be thousands of miles away. The excuse they gave was that all the other passengers had been doing their Christmas shopping in the States and had filled up the hold with their swag. This was no consolation considering Continental had stung us for $14 excess baggage each. So there we were, 8 miles from Mérida, the last bus having left hours ago. The only transport available was a minibus-taxi with a nominal capacity of 8 into which about 16 overnourished American college kids were trying to squeeze themselves and their extensive wardrobes. This attempt was doomed to failure. But the word must have got round that there were rich tourists to exploit and another minibus rolled up. The first driver was still trying to squash as many in as possible, as evidently one pays per person in these things.

We rang the airport the next day. The bikes had arrived on the next flight, and they brought them to our hotel. We spent a couple of days in Yucatan, getting over jet lag. We rode to Uxmal, a Mayan site with a VS grade pyramid, from the top of which is an incredible view over what seems to be a infinite stretch of flat jungle.

From Mérida we flew to Tuxtla Gutiérrez. At the check-in desk they were mildly surprised to see the bikes, but didn’t say no, or charge us extra, which was what we feared. Mind you, when we saw the plane we had our doubts about whether they’d get the bikes on. Tuxtla airport is a small length of tarmac with a shed at one end. This shed is the terminal building, and the luggage is passed to you through the window. Tuxtla itself is a dump, and we rode to Chiapa de Corzo on a dispiritingly wide road.

Chiapa is on the Grijalva river which cuts its way through a mile-deep fissure in the mountains, the Sumidero gorge. Some years ago the river was dammed to make a reservoir and hydroelectric power station: it also made the gorge navigable, hence boat trips for tourists and a good excuse for not doing any cycling that day.

Between Chiapa and San Cristóbal is a hill that rises 2000m in 30 miles, which I had been hoping to conceal from Colin, without much success, as unfortunately he knows how to read. It’s not much like an alpine climb. The gradient was never more about 1:20, for if it were any steeper, the average Mexican bus wouldn’t be able to make it. There are a few blind hairpin bends and these were usually a cue for a Kenworth truck to come lumbering up behind us. There are no cafés or shops on the way so we carried 4 litres of water and got through it all. The scenery gets better as you get higher, the vegetation lusher. The top of the pass, at a height of 2500m or so, is not well defined and there is no sign, no café, no cheering crowds, and only the view of the inside of a cloud.

We freewheeled into the best cake shop in San Cristóbal. This is a nice town, discovered many years ago by the trendy traveller set, and hence now full of restaurants serving more European food. This is just as well for we were a tad bored with the ubiquitous tortilla and Colin was desperate for chips.

Most Mexican towns have a central square, usually called the zócalo, the place for lazing around at any hour. The Mexicans inherited the custom of the paseo from the Spanish, which is strolling around town in the early evening. This is what the zócalo is for, except in San Cristobal, that December, when they were digging it up. Instead people conducted the paseo by car, resulting in gridlock all evening and every evening. Other notable features of S Cristóbal are a church so baroque as to be fractal, and, on the wall outside the tourist office, a beautifully detailed topographic 1:200 000 map of the state of Chiapas. God, did I want that map. It was not for sale.

A longish climb and a longer descent took us to Teopisca where we were the most exciting thing to happen in the town that day. We sailed past all the restaurants, not realising that these were the last ones on the road until Comitán. This was a poor area and there weren’t even any shops by the road side. We got pretty hungry, or at least I did. Colin’s appetite is unrelated to such unrefined things as energy requirements but rather is stimulated only by the prospect of a gourmet experience and certainly not more tortillas.

Comitán is a place with an unjustified excess of civic pride. Several miles before you get there, there are signs with “Bienvenidos a Comitán, ciudad limpia”. The layout of the streets was the usual grid, a rather daft idea here as the terrain was not flat, and we were not in the mood for 1-in-5 hills. The restaurants are bizarrely named for the tropics: Ecosses, Nevelandia... The Ecosses (=Scottish) was approppriately done out in tartan, the Nevelandia (=Snowland) in seventies psychedelic pink.

Colin by now had come to the conclusion that Spanish was no more than a dialect of Italian, and went to try this out in a CD shop. He asked if they had anything by Chavez – a Mexican composer – they looked blank. They hadn’t even heard of him. All right, neither had I.

I discovered that my Body Shop Seaweed and Rainforest shower gel had leaked out all over one pannier, and for the rest of the holiday I would have to wash in Swarfega. And Colin sat on my specs.

The next day it rained. We went on a fact finding mission to the tourist office. What’s the weather forecast? Where can we get a map like that one? Can we cycle down this track here? They seemed amused at the concept of a weather forecast, the map of course was not for sale, and they didn’t see why we wanted to cycle down the track when there was a perfectly good road. We had to fill in a detailed visitor’s book. What impression did we have of the town? Limpia, muy limpia.

It wasn’t just rain we had. We rode straight into a headwind, and very straight it was too, soul destroyingly straight. The scenery had degenerated here as the forests had been cleared to make poor quality grazing land. But the day was saved by the Parador Museo Santa Maria, an old hacienda recently converted into a hotel, where the baths were the size of swimming pools.

We took a vile track to a ruin. It was worth seeing for the setting, on sheer cliffs above a cenote, but it took some digging to loosen the gunk that got jammed in the mudguards. It rained the next day too, when we went off to see the Lagos de Montebello. This was not the most rewarding part of the tour. The lakes were pretty but there was a lot of tedious rough stuff riding between them, and we didn’t have much time. The place gets busy at weekends and there are hordes of hopeful vendors of honey and fruit, guides to a cave and pony trek operators. But this wasn’t a weekend and tourists were outnumbered 10 to 1. Back to Comitán, then.

The ride back to San Cristóbal wasn’t too hard. It was on average uphill, but we had the wind with us. The Restaurant Social in Teopisca was empty. Teopisca is a colourfully painted town and this restaurant probably its most colourful building, resembling a Tibetan temple with striped walls and flags across the courtyard. This was not the sort of place where you had a printed menu which you could translate at leisure; the menu was rattled off at speed by the almost spherical proprietress. We could identify pollo con mole. What we got was pollo con mole, risotto, tortillas, salad, beans, yet more tortillas. Then meringues with the coffee. Eating a lot at lunchtime is all very well if you are Mexican and all you’re going to do in the afternoon is sleep. But it is not so good for the mad British cycletourist with a 2500m pass between you and where you want to be that evening.

And so to Palenque. We were a little apprehensive about this part of the tour. It was difficult to tell from the guidebooks exactly what the road condition would be like. The book we’d found about cycling in Mexico [1] recommended three to five days for the journey, and we had two.

At first it was all too easy, a gentle climb on a very good road, through cool alpine forests. There was hardly any traffic, and what traffic there was was pretty strange. A bus wheezed past in a thick cloud of black smoke, a pig riding on the roof rack. An American RV towed a spare car. But most of the traffic was relay teams of runners carrying torches, each team with at least one backup vehicle, hooting all the way down the road. I think it had something to do with the festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Fortunately, they were all going from Palenque to Comitan, the opposite direction to us.

The day we rode from Ocosingo to Palenque was the hardest day of the tour. Palenque is technically downhill from Ocosingo, but downhill in the same way that Bourton is downhill from Northleach. We had taken a detailed count of the contours from that map at the tourist office, and reckoned we had 1600m of ascent. Scenically this was one of the best days for although the mountains weren’t as high as where we had been before, the scenery was more varied with constantly changing vistas. We took the 4-mile detour down to Agua Azul under orders from every guidebook. This is a series of rather macho waterfalls with such delightfully-named pools as ‘the Liquidiser’. The ride back to the road was murder: steep and washed away in parts, with coaches and 4WDs coasting silently round the blind bends.

Later I began to suffer. Colin offered to take the front panniers but I had become possessive about the luggage. saying it made the handling of the bike easier, really meaning I was too proud to let go of it.

The tourist office in San Cristóbal had told us there was somewhere to stay at Misol-Ha, another waterfall. Pity they hadn’t finished building it. We rode the last 10 miles or so to Palenque as night fell, somehow avoiding the lurking potholes and the rather brutal Mexican traffic-calming measures.

Mexico is not the quietest of places. With our usual impeccable timing we hit Palenque during the festival of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, the patron saint of Mexico and of explosives. We moved to a hotel a few miles out of town, well away from any other buildings apart from a small shed. Well, how were we to know they were going to hold an all-night party in that shed?

That was the end of the cycling, and we made our way back to England via 6 buses, 3 planes, 4 trains, 3 taxis and a nasty accident. We missed the guerrilla war.

TCM. 1994

[1]. Ericka Weisbroth and Eric Ellman, Bicycling Mexico, Hunter Publishing Inc., 1990.

The nasty accident was Tracey falling downstairs. From Palenque we’d caught a bus to Villahermosa, from where we flew back to Mérida. We caught a bus to Valladolid, intending to cycle back. Valladolid is a pleasant town with a nice hotel. Tracey fell and dislocated her shoulder. Her arm was in a sling when we visited Chichen Itzá, and we had a struggle getting our luggage and our bikes on a bus back to Mérida. But we managed. Tracey had her shoulder operated on, and now it’s as good as ever.

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