The bits in-between

April 5th, 2012

Los Angeles, Chiapas (population 1,000), could not have been more different to the Los Angeles, California (population 3.8 million) that we rode through four months earlier. In contrast to its more famous namesake, this LA was friendly, full of character and surrounded by beautiful mountains. There were no six-lane freeways, no fake smiles through over-polished teeth, and a definite lack of rat-sized dogs.

Like almost all of my favourite places and memories from this trip so far, LA wasn’t marked on our map. Instead, it was the boundary of La Sepultura biosphere reserve that caught our eye. A solitary dead-end dirt road snaked its way into the mountains, just begging to be explored. We decided it was time for a detour, asked some locals for advice, and turned off the main road.

25km of beautiful, twisting dirt road and one minor landslide later, we rolled into LA’s deserted village square on a rainy Saturday afternoon. We parked up outside the shop, next to a group of kids. Somewhere in the distance the unmistakable sound of the ice cream man’s horn sounded. My sugar craving kicked in and I began honking my own bike horn back in reply – like an ice cream mating call, trying to woo him closer. The kids burst out laughing and took over on the horn, until finally the ice cream man arrived to check out the imposter. The Gringo Show – as we have come to refer to ourselves – had arrived in town.

We spent the next two days in LA. We met with the village mayor, Lázaro, who invited us to camp behind the village hall for as long as we wanted. A friendly local shop owner invited us into her house to eat tostadas – delicious deep fried tortillas loaded with frijoles, avocado, cheese and amazing salsa. We watched the monthly Parish meeting, where locals dressed in their Sunday best discussed the key issues before slick local politicians made their pitches for votes in Mexico’s upcoming elections. We headed down to the river for a bracing but much-needed wash. On the Sunday evening, Lee swapped Colorado stories with Lázaro’s family (many of whom had spent time working there) while we tucked into crispy chicken tacos cooked by his wife.

LA has no “must-see” sights or activities. It’s just a normal rural Mexican village – like hundreds of others we have cycled through – where normal people are going about their daily lives trying to scrape together a living. If it wasn’t a dead-end, it’s the kind of place you would speed through on a bus or in a car in-between destinations; a blurred backdrop of running children and chickens.

Yet the further we go on this trip, the more I realise that I am far more interested in these “bits in-between”, like Los Angeles, than the destination towns and touted traveller highlights we naturally gravitate towards. Of course, the destination towns serve their purpose. They give us somewhere to aim for; a measure of our progress and momentum. As we get close after a few weeks on the road, we find ourselves craving their beds, varied food and connection with the outside world.

But after we arrive and the initial glow of luxurious living fades, we’re often left disappointed. By their nature, tourist destinations are safe and predictable. Tedious even. We feel like we’ve seen it before – and that’s because we probably did, just a few weeks earlier.

In comparison, our experiences in-between these destinations are often spontaneous, surprising and genuine. At bike speed, we are fully immersed in the colours, sounds and smells of the places we ride through. We can stop, observe, talk, explore, interact. We are invited to stay with people, to eat and drink with them out of nothing more than genuine hospitality. We have the chance to find out more about their lives and to share something of ours.

 

We don't normally make it beyond 10.30am before the shouts of "licuado time!" begin. Leaving Oaxaca, we pulled over in Ayoquezco and began the search. Soon we found our man, who blended up papaya with milk, cinammon and ice (plus a so-far unidentified magical powder) to make the perfect roadside drink.

Life in Mexico is powered by tortillas, and making them is a family business. In Sola de Vega, we followed the smell of fresh maize and the sounds of squeaking machinery, and soon had our hands on a carefully wrapped paper package of hot maize goodness for the day ahead.

In the tiny hamlet of Luz de Luna, we pitched our tents on the local football pitch. It seemed a peaceful spot, until a cow herd arrived and it became clear that we had invaded their preferred sleeping spot. After a close investigation of Lee's tent, they decided to leave the weird gringos alone and settled down for the night around us. We kept watch burning ocote, a resinous red pine used locally for torches.

Climbing up through morning mist in the valleys on another rollercoaster ride through the beautiful Sierra Madre del Sur, from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido. We poured with sweat on the long uphills...

...and grinned with delight through the switch-backed downhills. Finally we glimpsed the Pacific in the distance, and it was as if someone had switched on a hairdryer straight into our faces - just a taste of the coastal heat to come.

Looking for any excuses to escape the sun, we began a roadside fruit crawl, starting with a juicy watermelon picked from an enormous pile...

...followed by sweet mango, Mexican style with a sprinkling of chilli. I have to confess to being a former mango sceptic turned evangelist on this trip - the expensive, flavourless bars of soap that call themselves mangos at home don't even deserve to share the name.

A cinematic view of Mazunte beach from our camping spot, perched on stilts high above the waves.

The perfect early morning light picked out rich colours and detail on our ramshackle wooden deck - the morning after someone's night before...

...and a discarded beach shell collection.

A perfect spot for contended cats and cyclists. I could happily have stayed here for weeks, reading and watching the hypnotic surf rolling in and out.

We turned our alarm clocks back to 5am to try and get some kilometres under our belt before the midday heat, but as always we were easily distracted. First by Silvia, who insisted on feeding us breakfast coffee and biscuits after we had spent the night camped on her patio...

...and then by her blind goat, which took great pleasure in licking the salt and sweat from our legs - the closest we'd come to a shower for a while.

Soaking up what was probably our last Pacific sunrise for a few months at Playa Cangrejo, just west of Salina Cruz...

...before crossing the Isthmus de Tehuantepec, the narrow "waist" of Mexico - hot, tedious and lorry-heavy, but thankfully fast and flat.

Standing on street corners looking lost often leads to the best invitations. In Zanatapec, Miguel, a local moto-taxi driver, stopped and asked if he could help. Within half an hour we were camped under a mango tree in his backyard, gorging on freshly picked fruit while he told us about his years working in Oregon.

Abarrotes, misceláneas, mini-supers...they go by many different names and come in all sizes and colours, but the humble Mexican corner shop is a reliable roadside friend. Coke, crisps and biscuits are guaranteed for an instant sugar spike - and if you're really lucky you might find homemade bolis or paletas (ice lollies).

Turning away from the coast and up into the state of Chiapas, we detoured up a dirt road into the beautiful Reserva Biosfera de la Sepultura. Lázaro senior, the village mayor, and Lázaro junior (yet to learn the art of the Mexican stony photo face) welcomed us to the village of Los Angeles.

Leaving LA the next day, we encountered the school run, Mexican backroads style...

...and this hairy tarantula, which ambled unperturbed across the road in front of us.

After a day's climb up through beautiful mountain villages from Chiapa de Corzo, we arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas. We headed straight for El Hostalito - a cool and cosy hostel with a cycling twist. Everyone tells us people get "stuck" in San Cristóbal. With our ongoing dodgy stomachs plus Easter and a free film festival around the corner, somehow I think we may be joining them for a while...

James

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