Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stumbling our way through Southern Mexico: Puerto Angel to Palenque (26th Jan - 12th Feb)

Our last few weeks in Mexico proved to be slightly trying – showing that just when you get into the rhythm of cycling life you are going to get a few topes (speedbumps) thrown in your path. At least our last few weeks proved to be memorable, and showed us that Mexico had a few more things to teach us before we left the country, including:
  • it is still possible for me, even after 10,000km of practice, to cycle straight into a wall while riding along a footpath (granted I was staring at the pavement trying to work out how Russ, who was riding in front of me, had just managed to ride straight into the same wall!)
  • the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico is not the most enjoyable place to cycle unless you enjoy being blown sideways off the road
  • The beginnings of nausea are a good indication to quickly find yourself a hotel room, otherwise you will end up vomiting in someones garden
However, while it wasn't the easiest of times we still had the wonderful friendliness of the Mexican people to cheer us up as we travelled from the Oaxacan coast, across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and then up into the mountains of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Climbing into the mountains of Chiapas was thoroughly enjoyable (no really..) because it is a fascinating area where indigenous culture is still very strong and where the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a revolutionary socialist group, holds sway. We climbed up to the town of San Christobel de la Casas, a chilled out spot in the mountains that is filled with a full range of services to keep gringos happy - great coffee and an endless supply of cheap chocolate croissants (well, this made us happy!).
We also managed to make it to San Cris in time for Lorely's birthday so we could celebrate with our birthday routine of coffee and pastries, Jules' special omelets for breaky and a feast of wine and cheese for dinner. We were staying with a wonderful warm showers host who was also owner of 'El Hostalito' a fantastic little hostel where we could relax and do all our necessary day-off jobs. We managed to give Norma and Betty a good clean and overhaul, and fix my busted front rack (a victim of one of those severe Mexican speedbumps) .
So after a few days rest we set off from San Cristobel in great spirits – we knew we had a lot of downhill to do (my favourite type of hill), and only a few more days until we were going to cross the border into Guatemala, and of course we were all excited to head into Central America. Unfortunately, the most well-laid plans go awry. I started feeling ill the first day out of San Cris and felt awful during the afternoon's ride. I was so happy to arrive at our destination, the town of Ocosingo, that I promptly jumped off the bike and threw up in someone's garden.
This was not my finest entrance to a town, and of course rocking up in a small Mexican town as a conspicuous gringo with a fully loaded touring bike and then stumbling from garden to garden to throwing up is not the best way to fit in! Thankfully Lorely and Russ quickly found us a hotel room and could bundle me inside to continue my pursuits in the solitude of my own bathroom. I was feeling a little better the next day but one by one everyone else also became ill and in the end all four of us were getting very intimate with the hotel's bathrooms.
We had three days in Ocosingo feeling sorry for ourselves but recovered enough after our fourth night there to head out on the bikes to the beautiful waterfalls of Agua Azul where we spent the night. The next day we headed on to Palenque where we found a lovely campsite with a pool. This was very promising as the weather was hot, we were all feeling a lot better and were excited about spending the next day at the Mayan ruins of Palenque and then the afternoon in the pool.
In the night it rained.. and it continued for the whole next day, which kind of ruined our pool plans, but we still managed to thoroughly enjoy our day at the ruins of Palenque. The weather added extra atmosphere to the already stunning ruins set deep in the jungle, with the mist rising off the trees behind.
The weather was less atmospheric when the rain continued the next few days and by the time we left Palenque a couple of days later everything we owned smelt like wet dog. We headed off in the pouring rain towards the Guatemalen border (170kms away) and I started feeling crook again, with bad stomach cramps which didn't add to the pleasantness of riding 170kms! However, the rain stopped part way into the day, the miles flew by pretty quickly and our day turned out to be quite exciting as we managed to see a crocodile, turtles, a howler monkey, toucans and a couple of other cycle tourists (our first on the road since Baja!),..a nice welcome to Central America.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mountains. Jungle. Sea: Mexico City to the Oaxacan Coast (12th - 25th Jan '11)

We left Mexico City with less friends...Jessie was off the bike on new adventures and we lost Pedro who was still wondering the city's sights. Back to just the four of us, Team Lusty and Jules and I, as we spent a day cycling to Puebla and a day checking out the town. Poor old Russ got sick in Puebla and so it was back to just the two of us as Jules and I headed off by ourselves... arranging to meet up with Russ and Lorely four days later in Oaxaca.
I was a bit nervous about riding as just the two of us because only a few days before Jules had caused my first crash of my trip. I had been riding happily along, minding my own business, when she suddenly swerved into me, knocking me off my bike and sending me sprawling into the road. I am not sure whether it was an actual accident, as she professed, or a protest against being dragged to too many museums in Mexico City. Either way it made me a little nervous riding alongside her, and I now try and leave a good deal of personal space.... in case of sudden moves.
However, the four day ride from Puebla to Oaxaca was actually very pleasant, filled with great little Mexican towns, pretty countryside and without any major bodily harm inflicted upon anyone.
It was great to meet up with our Team Lusty again and enjoy the delights of Oaxaca, a very pretty city, with a nice big square and lots of cute cafes.. to service all the tourists! We hadn't been around this many tourists for ages. But we enjoyed the luxuries of the big town as we drank frappe upon frappe with the rest of the gringos.
After a day's rest we headed for the coast. We had high hopes for our ride from Oaxaca towards the coast, as we knew we had to lose about 2000m in height. Unfortunately we also had to go up and down a bunch of mountains in the meantime! We had one not too bad day with some smallish hills and then we hit the big mountains. Steep, steep climbs but also some good downhills too. Unfortunately the road wasn't in great condition so as we went zooming down the hills we shuddered over the rough road. We also went through a bunch of small towns which added to the thrill of going downhill at great speed, trying to avoid children, dogs and chickens, as well as potholes.
However, it was a fantastic days ride, leaving the arid inland plains, going up through the dry mountains, into the conifers and then coming out the other side into a cloud and a rainforest! The change was extreme. I was in seventh heaven cycling along checking out all the new plants: the big leaved forest species, the vines hanging down across the roads, the bright flowers, lush greens and all the jungle birds! We were less impressed with the sudden appearance of the heat and humidity, and our gasps of wonder at the new environment were ruined by sweat dripping into our open mouths.
We camped at the base of the mountain, still in the jungley area, and woke up to the sounds of the jungle birds. That morning was spent striking for the coast where we left the lush jungle but found the sparkling blue waters, cabana bars and chilled atmosphere of Puerto Angel, a small fishing village. This was the perfect opportunity to take a few days to swim, relax and eat yum fruit salads. I insisted on buying snorkel and goggles for Jules and myself (yes, i know, not the most practical purchase on a long distance cycling trip...) and we splashed around checking out the corals and tropical fish. Followed by beers on the beach. Sweet.
We now leave our beach sojourn to head into the winds of the interiors and the mountains, our new snorkel and goggles unhelpfully strapped on the back of our bikes.