A healthy dose of anxiety, excitement and anticipation accompanied us across the border between the US and Mexico.  With an ongoing  violent drug war between the government and the cartels, so many people felt compelled to tell how dangerous Mexico was.  However, we refused to write the whole place off based on the unlikely event of us two cyclists being caught up in the drugs furore, and gringo paranoia about one particularly dangerous border town (Tijuana).

That said, we took advice from a Baja cycling guru (thanks Bob!); someone who had been here recently, ridden the roads and could tell us what to expect.  With Bob’s advice, we changed our border crossing plans at the last minute from Tijuana to Tecate, paid for our tourist cards with some trepidation and wondered what Mexico might hold for us.  In the first three weeks, it’s been a dizzying mixture of sights, sounds and experiences, but so far so good.  In fact, so far, so fantastic!

Delighted that our change of border crossing meant an amazing journey into Baja California through mountains and wine country, we had the best introduction to a land steeped in history, culture, beauty and hospitality.  Now we’re here, we’re playing it safe and being careful about our camping spots and our riding, but overall my first impressions of Mexicans and Mexico are of a vibrant, warm and stimulating place…I am hungry for more.

 

Roads

We were spoilt, coming through the border at Tecate and onto quiet roads and then dirt track.  Joining busy and narrow Highway 1 after more than a week of wilderness riding was a bit of an unpleasant shock but we’re gradually adjusting.

 

Time for a map change as we leave the US and venture into Mexico. The cycle mirror – geeky as it looks – has been really useful on Highway 1 where we have to pull off the road into the ditch whenever two big vehicles are crossing as there’s literally no room for us on the road itself….

…like this!

Stopping by the side of the road to fix a puncture has quickly become part of the routine. Broken glass, cacti thorns and tyre debris all cause problems, even for our sturdy tyres. I seem to have had all the bad luck so far: current score is Bedders 5, Jams 0!

As we headed east for Gonzaga Bay, the pavement ended and 60km of dirt began. Sand, gravel, rocks and awesome scenery made for an exciting detour to a beautiful bay….and the bikes survived!

On the dirt track, we often had the whole place to ourselves….

Cacti

The desert really delivers when it comes to cacti; they’re everywhere.  All shapes and sizes and all covered in long spiky thorns just waiting to jab you in the bum, or puncture a tyre.

Spiky ones…

…fuzzy ones…

…and ones that a whole lot taller than we ever expected!

Food

For two people so preoccupied with finding the next meal, we’ve been notably lax in finding the famous “best fish taco in the world” that Baja boasts.  We’re hoping to find great seafood when we rejoin the Sea of Cortez as we head further south.  In the meantime, we’ve found plenty of other tasty treats.

We weren’t expecting a lunchtime stop at a tiny shop shack to provide such a tasty dessert but this was amazing. Fresh fruit, local soft cheese, local honey and nuts and seeds for the top…sooo good!

After 4 months on cheese and tomato sandwiches, we have been delighted to change our routine, to cheese and tomato tortillas. Same ingredients, different wrapping. But with local avocados and by the side of the road after a long morning’s ride, boy do they taste good.

The usual porridge and jam sandwich is replaced by a sumptuous slice of delicious chocolate and caramel cheesecake. Thanks to Cristina at Punta Prieta, we enjoyed a decadent breakfast treat!

Before leaving the US, James had attempted to mentally prepare me for the likelihood of little access to bread and cakes. Having been to Mexico before, he remembered only a world of tortillas and rice. Thankfully he couldn’t have been more wrong, with most small towns having at least one Panaderia churning out hundreds of delicious sweet treats and soft bread rolls…naturally, it’s only polite to indulge.

People

As with the US, we’ve been bowled over by hospitality, warmth, generosity and good humour almost as soon as we arrived.  James’ fluent Spanish has come in very handy, helping us to meet with local Mexicans and secure friendly places to camp.  We’ve also met some US ex pats living down here who have been only too eager to help out some fellow gringos…even if they do think we’re crazy for cycling!

We met with Bob before leaving San Diego and spent a couple of invaluable hours poring over maps of Baja while he dispensed plenty of great advice. Thanks Bob, you’re our Baja Guru!

A day’s ride out of Tecate and looking for somewhere to camp, we stop when Luis waves at us from his ranch. James goes down to say hello and Luis offers us a soft grassy place to pitch the tent and sits out under amazing stars to talk to us about Mexico. His friend Roberto joins us in the morning for coffee and more chat.

Passing us twice on the road during the day, Rene stopped her car and asked us to join her at her house is San Felipe. Cue an amazing barbeque feast and lots of talk about the dirt road ahead to Gonzaga Bay…she said we’d never make it….

…but we did and here we are outside Barney’s! Barney was so generous; when we wearily cycled past looking for a place to camp, he invited us to use his neighbour’s beach house overlooking the beautiful bay. He showed us the collection of dirt buggies that he restores and we shared a beer whilst he dispensed very useful advice about the rest of our journey through Baja.

This man is a legend. 40km from Gonzaga Bay and 20km from the next road, Coco lives on his own surrounded by lots of beer, an impressive ladies’ underwear collection and lots of desert. We turned up expecting to camp and he insisted we drink his beer, sign the guest book, eat his food and sleep in his “guest trailer”. An amazing experience…Google “Coco’s Corner, Baja Mexico” to see more!

Coco sent us on a mission, with a hand drawn map and a package to deliver to Cristina at Punta Prieta. Somehow we managed to find her and she asked us to be the first official guests at her beautiful ranch. With her nephew Fermin and her daughter Ana Cristina, they gave us a wonderfully warm Mexican welcome.

Dogs

Some friendly, some ferocious, Baja is teeming with dogs.  Almost everywhere we’ve stayed has had at least three resident dogs many of whom became firm friends by the end of our stay.  Not so welcome are the dogs protecting properties by the side of the road; they hear a bike coming and sprint out of their gate barking and snapping at our panniers, making for a 10-20 second episode of pure fear as we pedal like crazy to escape.

Our first experience with a Mexican canine welcome committee. This is Palomo at Rancho el Chaco…one of four resident pooches, he invited himself right into the tent which at this point, James is enjoying…when he tried to get back in at 1am, it wasn’t so funny.

Another night spent at a local’s ranch and we were on the road early the next day. Surprisingly, one of the dogs wanted to come along too. She ran behind us for 5 miles! No amount of berating or turning back could dissuade her, she just stopped running when her little legs got too tired…hopefully they had enough stamina left to get her back home…

It’s hard to resist giving in to the local dogs when they look at you like this!

Beaches

Why do people come to Baja?  For the beaches.  On an 800 mile long peninsular, we’re sandwiched between fantastic beaches on the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sea of Cortez to the east.  We’ve already seen many beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and whiled away plenty of time watching pelicans, osprey, dolphins and hundreds of other seabirds off the coasts.

One of the gorgeous bays at San Felipe where we camped on the beach…until the wind rose to serious gusts and we had to move the tent at 2am to avoid being blown away!

3km down a sand track to a hidden beach at Percebu. We had to push the bikes through heavy sand some of the way but it was worth it.

There are hot springs at the beach at Puerticitos. It’s a very peculiar sensation to lie in roasting hot water bubbling up through volcanic rock, and feel it mingling with chilly salt water coming in from the sea….but highly recommended.

A beautiful view from the terrace of the beach house where Barney invited us to crash in at Gonzaga Bay. An inspiring, gorgeous bay, we can completely understand why Barney’s been here for 35 years.

So now we’re headed further south and to La Paz for Christmas.  You can now track our progress with a map we’ve added.  Just click on the word “Route” at the top of this page.

 

Sarah

 

 

 

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Diary of a desert crossing

December 27th, 2011

The only problem with blogging every few weeks about our trip is that we cherry pick our ‘best bits’; the most scenic views, the prime camping spots, the most interesting people we meet and the tastiest food.

In reality though, our trip (and bike touring in general) is never quite like that. Even in Baja, in between these highlights there are inevitably a few days of repetitive “eat ride sleep”; of uninspiring roads, tired legs and occasional headwinds.

So just to balance things out a little, here’s 24 hours from our recent final Baja leg, from Loreto to La Paz. After a beautiful initial climb away from the coast, we faced a fairly tedious three day trek across the desert to reach La Paz for Christmas Eve.

Thankfully, we were accompanied by our current riding partner Lee, a hairy bundle of fun from Colorado who is always on hand with tortillas, impressions and randomness to put a smile back on your face. One of a cluster of Pan American cyclists we’ve met recently, Lee has been riding with us after Ian – the other half of their 350 South trip – had to return to San Diego with a broken hub.

6am. Alarm. Try and remember where we are. Stick head out of tent – a small cactus grove somewhere in the Baja desert. Grunt a good morning to Lee. Stomach is already growling and demanding attention.

6.30am. Fire up the stove. Lee swears and beats his stove repeatedly on the ground. It finally coughs and splutters into life.

6.45am. Breakfast: an industrial sized portion of porridge, bananas, tortillas with honey and coffee. Gradually progress from grunts to conversation as coffee begins to take effect.

7am. Correct American on pronunciation of ‘banana’. Establish that Bananaman never made it big in the US.

7.30am. Morning dash into the bushes for hole digging routine. Panic that I’m about to re-dig mine or even worse, someone else’s hole from the night before. Squatting in the bushes is like a high risk game of battleships out here.

8.15am. Early morning stretching regime. Try to avoid yesterday’s mistake of leaning against cactus.

8.30am. Re-trace our steps out of our desert hiding place and back to the main road. Head for Ciudad Insurgentes, one of only two towns we'll see over these four days, and the first bend in the road after 30 miles riding in a straight line.

9.01am. Carefully negotiate bend, thankful we remember how to steer.

9.18am. Bedders and I launch into impromptu singing of “Walking in the Air” in an effort to inject some Christmas spirit into the desert. Lee looks baffled.

9.30am. Bedders smells a bakery ahead and takes to the front to drive an unrelenting pace to Ciudad Constitucion, the second town on route. Head into town for food, water and distraction.

10am. Stop at supermarket to buy 2kg of fresh tortillas. Come out to find Lee cornered by mexican with beer in hand asking him for a tortilla. Explain politely that he has little chance of getting any food from three hungry cyclists. Mexican asks Lee (currently sporting a 6 month beard) if he is a direct descendant of Santa Claus.

11am. Next stop, a fruteria for fruit and veg to stave off the scurvy. Lee buys enough to feed a small Mexican village.

11.30am. Hunt for water. Stumble across a licuado (fresh fruit drink) store run by Benjamin, with a long line up of mouthwatering flavours. Can't resist trying horchata (rice and milk), sandia (watermelon) and cebollada (barley) - all delicious.

11.35am. Benjamin opens a huge jug of purified water and fills our bottles – about 35 litres between the three of us for the next two days.

11.40am. Sarah and I head next door to the panaderia for a sugar hit. Benjamin suddenly comes running in to ask Sarah how much she loves me. She reassures him. He seems pleased.

11.45am. Benjamin gathers us round for a group hug and pep talk, and waves us off.

12.30pm. Finally make it out of Constitucion.

2pm. Stop at the roadside for lunch – tortillas, fresh cheese, avocado, tomato and fruit. Mexican army convoy passes and waves cheerfully over their machine guns. The two old men doze off and dribble into our beards.

3.30pm. Tedious desert road. Lose myself in thoughts of pizza toppings.

5pm. Approaching our 100km target for the day and reach a small village. Church looks like it could be a good camping spot, but decide to push on for a few more km, as desert has been unfenced and so should be easy to sneak into for wild camping.

5.01pm. Desert is now barb-wire fenced on both sides. Legs had thought they were done for the day and no longer work. Road becomes more rolling.

5.45pm. Finally come across a cattle grid leading to a small track into the desert. Wait for a break in the traffic so we can sneak off the road unseen. My water bag falls off the bike, ensuring that every car passing for the next five minutes sees exactly where we’re going. Ride about 1km along track, find a small ravine to hide in and pitch our tents.

6.30pm. Lee aggravates a passing scorpion with a stick. Just a little guy, not one of the larger “deer killers” we’d been hoping to see. Mental note to make sure the tent inner is zipped up tonight and shoes inside.

7pm. Feeding time at the zoo – rice, beans and tortillas, enlivened with the ubiquitous Mexican hot sauce. Wonder if I’ve eaten my own body weight yet in tortillas in Mexico.

7.45pm. Correct American on pronunciation of his own surname, ‘Saville’. Point out it should be as in Jimmy Saville, not as in the Spanish city. Attempt to explain who Jimmy Saville is. American looks nonplussed.

8.30pm. Pick-up truck passes along track – headtorches out and duck down. Pick-up bumps its way past into the distance, presumably out to a ranch in the middle of nowhere.

9pm. Conversation fades, and we finally give in to the inevitable.

9.05pm. Tents reverberate gently to the sounds of three snoring cyclists.

James

 

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Baja Sur – picture gallery

December 31st, 2011

A small selection of photos from the last three weeks of cycling the Baja peninsula.  Amongst other things, the southern section of Baja provided us with plenty of wild desert camping and a dirt road detour to the “garlic capital of Baja”  - where we were five months too early for the new garlic but we did get a look at the leftovers from last year…

We had more beautiful beach camping, particularly at Playa Juncalito where we spent three very relaxed nights and then at Casa de los Sueños outside of Mulegé, a real find through Warmshowers.  Many many thanks to our host there, Fabian, who generously shared a  private beach with beautiful views, kayaks for paddling over to the nearby hot springs and supplies for the road.

Honey tortillas

Sunrise at Juncalito

Bull stops traffic

Early morning catch

Mmmm, breakfast burritos

Swapping the tent for a palapa

Bahia de Concepión

Casa de los Sueños

Mulegé lighthouse

Desert flower

Drying chillies

Last year's garlic

The road runs out...

Downhill to the garlic capital

It might not look steep....

San Ignacio snacking

Vizcaíno desert

Blogging in the desert

Wild camp sunset

Sarah

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Sailing on the Sea of Cortez

January 5th, 2012

 

It’s not officially Christmas without Bedders in a santa hat - Feliz Navidad from Baja California!

Arriving in La Paz on Christmas Eve, we treated ourselves to a bed, a much-needed shower and a festive feast of tamales, fish tacos and roast chicken. It turned out quite a few other Pan-American riders had decided to do the same, and we spent time catching up with Lee and Andy, and met Ruben and Heidi from the inspirational Pedal Powered Family.

We headed down to the marina to see if we could find ourselves a passage across to the Mexican mainland, and came away with an even better offer. Michael was heading out into the Sea of Cortez for five days of snorkelling and fishing, and invited the three of us along to crew on board his 46-feet yacht Fan.

We jumped at the chance to swap pedal power for wind power for a few days, and it was bliss. I can’t think of a better way to wash off the desert, wrap up our Baja experience and celebrate almost six months on the road.

Michael had recently bought Fan as a working project in San Francisco, and sailed her down to Baja for the winter.

Home-built by a carpenter, Fan is full of character with beautiful wooden details such as these flowers above deck. Michael has plans to renovate her fully in 2012 to bring her up to scratch and ready to sail anywhere!

So, after some last minute stitching work...

...the sails were up and we were underway. We headed north out of La Paz into the Sea of Cortez, the incredibly rich body of water which separates Baja from the mainland and which Jacques Cousteau famously called "the aquarium of the world".

After a couple of days finding our sea legs (and stomachs), we worked our way along the sheltered coves of Espiritu Santo Island, quickly settling into a tough routine of reading...

...swimming and snorkelling in the incredible turqouise water...

...and perfecting our nautical "gaze at the horizon" poses.

In between, Michael took time to show his novice crew some of the ropes...

...and despite her track record for wayward steering, even let Bedders take to the helm (no punctures this time you'll be pleased to hear).

Despite a sea teeming with marine life and our best efforts, the fish refused to bite...

..but we did get lucky with an incredible afternoon spent snorkelling at a sea lion rookery. The pups inquisitively swam right up to our faces to check out the strange gringos in wetsuits, while the adults torpedoed below us with incredible power and grace.

Sunset

At the end of each day we were treated to a spectacular Baja sunset show, as the sun dipped towards the horizon...

...before setting the sky alight with a fireshow of reds, oranges and purples.

And what better way to celebrate New Year's Day than an early morning leap into the Sea of Cortez! A very Happy 2012 to everyone - to friends and family back home, but also to all the new friends we met and who helped us along the road in 2011. Here's to more Latin American adventures in the coming 12 months...

James

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Climbs & Cramps

March 9th, 2012

After a pretty bland diet in Cuba, we were so excited about returning to a food fiesta in Mexico.  Unfortunately, as soon as we got back, we both got sick and we stayed longer in the city than planned trying to get well.  Thinking we were on the mend, we headed into the mountains and some beautiful riding.  Although we tried to ignore it, the symptoms were still there and became a big part of our cycling days over the next two weeks….dashes to the bathroom/bushes, stomach cramps and severe dehydration.

Between Mexico City and Oaxaca we had eight days of riding interspersed with six unplanned days of resting, a ratio we really can’t afford to keep up on this trip…it would take us years to reach South America on that timescale.  So eventually it was time to see a doctor and get the medication we needed.

We suddenly had a new appreciation of our free healthcare at home in the UK; it’s a strange concept to us, paying to see a doctor.  It was a difficult decision as our daily budget doesn’t really stretch to doctor’s visits and medication but it was well worth the money!  Now feeling much better, we’re enjoying the vibrant food culture of Oaxaca and making up for lost time.

Hopefully we’re over the cramps and the nasty bugs, but there’s definitely more climbing to come as we head for the coast via some more mountains and then into Chiapas towards San Cristobal and the Mayan ruins at Palenque.

Before the sickness hit, we sample a yummy tostada in the enormous Zócalo in Mexico City. Topped with frijoles (beans), fresh cheese, coriander and hot salsa it has all the tastes and colours of Mexico on one edible plate.

19 million people live in the greater area of Mexico City so leaving by bike, amongst cars, taxis, minibuses and trucks was a bit of a headache...

But once out of the city, we headed towards Paso de Cortes which took us between two of Mexico's three highest volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. 23km of climbing later and we reached the highest point of the trip so far, 3,600m (11,800ft), with incredible views of two beautiful volcanoes...one of which was omniously smoking and rumbling all afternoon...

Sweeping downhill and into Puebla, we met Emilio a Mexican English teacher and his students Ares and Alice. They took us around the markets, introduced us to red bananas and were amazingly generous, interesting and unexpected hosts for the day.

After Puebla we headed back out into the countryside and camped outside the house of Dionysus and Cristina. Dionysus works out in the fields nearby and one of his sources of income is harvesting "agua de miel" (honey water) from Maguey cacti. He offered to take us out in the morning to show us how it's done and so we rode alongside him on his horse and cart, to see how he harvests what's known locally as "the wine of the Aztec Gods".

The tools of Dionysus' trade are just a sharp knife and a straw to draw the agua de miel out of the centre of the cactus. Left in the sunshine to ferment the juice transforms into "pulque" a potent alcholic drink that's popular with countryside folk but not for feeble sickly cyclists!

Whilst climbing in the Sierra, we ended one of our cycling days at the town of Vicente Guerrero and were tempted to ask if we could camp in a beautiful garden. It turned out to be the local convent and the four nuns who lived there insisted we stay with them. Mother Superior even cooked us eggs, frijoles and tortillas for breakfast the following morning.

What's the easiest way to get a newly bought sheep home from the market? Stick him on top of the bus...and make sure you've got someone to help you get him down when you get to the other end...

Coming back down from the Sierra, my stomach bug decided to kick in properly so depsite the awesome views of the surrounding valley, the 50kmph speeds and the sweeping curves of a nice smooth road, I really wasn't in the mood!

Reaching Teotitlán, I was feeling pretty pathetic so James went off to find a cheap hotel and I sat on the pavement in the shade. Interrupting my self-pity, this group of teenagers, just out of school, stopped to fire lots of questions at me about our trip and James returned to find me surrounded and trying desperately to find the right words in my very limited vocab...

My trip to the doctor furnished me with lots of very welcome drugs...aniobiotics and antispasmodics are common prescriptions for stomach complaints. I was a little surprised by the lacteolfort. Prescribed to introduce more healthy bacteria to my stomach to help strengthen it, it felt very strange drinking a solution knowing there was 10 million pulverised bacteria in it! For the moment though they seem to have set up residence and are helping me out very nicely...

After a few days resting in Teotitlán, we set out for Oaxaca; through fields of lime and mango trees and past farmers driving oxen.

A day's climbing (a whole day!) and it felt like we were asking constantly "ARE WE THERE YET?!"...stopped here for a banana break with incredible views but it was pretty early on in the day so whilst high and beautiful it most certainly wasn't the top. There was more climbing to come...

...much more climbing!

Finally we rolled into Oaxaca and now it was James' turn to visit the doctor; he was given an identical prescription to mine and started his treatment straight away. Whilst resting, we wandered through the old colonial city, full of churches and art. These statues are part of an outdoor installation by a local artist concerned with the mass emigration of Mexicans to the United States.

Unlike this local, we find that the blazing temperatures in the middle of the day make it too hot to ride...

Art and graffiti on the buildings of Oaxaca makes it a stimulating place to walk around. It's in a state of Mexico known for protest and social tension and the artists who live here challenge locals and visitors alike with their expression...this one reads "silence kills".

We visited the ruins of Monte Alban just outside the city. Zapotec people started living at this site from 500BC and developed a grand city with plazas, temples and palaces.

Restoration work on some of the ruins was interesting to watch; like painting by numbers but with bricks. The stone masons here have numbered all of the original bricks so they can put the wall back together correctly.

Many of the structures at Monte Alban are still intact and give a sense of just how grand this site once was.

The heat of the middle of the day isn't the ideal time to be traipsing around Zapotec ruins; much better to find a precious bit of shade under a beautiful blossoming Jacaranda tree.

We've met up with Lee again, the cyclist from Colorado who we did some riding with in Baja California. Now we're both feeling back to health and appetites are raging, it was great to share an empanada with him and hear how his journey has been. Then, knowing that there are still many more climbs ahead, we made some drastic decisions to send some heavy kit items home. Filtering the items out started out as a fairly organised task but soon our room looked like the panniers had all exploded and left James and Lee scratching their heads trying to decide whether to keep that second crucial pair of socks...

…now all we have to do is get back on the road!

Sarah

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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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Vuelta de Chiapas

May 6th, 2012

When people return from holiday and they’ve had a good time, you always hear them say “…and the people were SO nice!” like this is some sort of surprise or shock.  Is it actually a reassuring sign that deep down most people genuinely are good?  Mexico has seen us enjoy so many unmotivated, generous acts that it’s difficult to sum them all up.

We’ve experienced the country from a rare perspecitve; by arriving by bike and avoiding the main tourist areas where we can.  The Mexican people we have spent time with in these smaller towns and villages have always wanted to know more – about our trip, about our homes and about our impressions of their country.  This last topic is always interesting.  We’ve been asked more than once “what were your impressions of Mexico BEFORE you came here”.  Whilst we chose to ignore them, our time in the US was littered with conversations warning us to expect a country full of murderers and thieves; and with people begging us to reconsider our planned travel there.

The reality we have found is that people go out of their way to help, to welcome and to feed three dirty cyclists who are, let’s face it, basically on a long holiday and don’t deserve such gifts.  From Roberto who allowed us to camp at his ranch the second night we were in Mexico, to the lady yesterday in a village pharmacy who filled our bottles of water for free when she was selling bottled water from her fridge, it feels like it has been an endless line of people queueing up to be good to us.

After four months in Mexico and on the verge of entering a new country (Guatemala), we can’t help but reflect on how lucky we’ve been to meet all these wonderful people in a land which according to the worldwide media is so dangerous.  But then perhaps it’s not luck but the fact that Mexico is actually just brimming with lovely people  - the troubles they have are contained to a minority of the population that makes front page news everywhere else.

We will share our impressions of this country with anyone who will listen: Mexico is fabulous.  Go there and see for yourself.  The people we have met and the food we have eaten (there’s been some good cycling and attractive scenery along the way too) has enriched us, enlightened us and inspired us to offer the same generosity and hospitality when we get home…if that’s the lasting impact of a “bad” country, we’re pleased we ignored advice, and we look forward already to our return here.

Our last three weeks in Mexico were no exception to the enjoyable experience we’ve had throughout.  We finally managed a departure from San Cristóbal after a long month where we’d been trying to flush out unwelcome parasites (oh, there you go, something we didn’t enjoy about our stay in Mexico: unwelcome doses of entamoeba histolyica, giardia and hookworm for each of us!).  The trip to the border via a very circuitous route saw us weaving around Chiapas, a beautiful state with wonderful sights.

Leaving San Cristóbal after a month was a shock to the system. Despite the parasites, we made the most of our time here, enjoying a free film festival, a live Easter crucifixion re-enactment, meeting a lively group of Mexican language students and soaking up the picturesque settting from our rooftop terrace at Tierras Mayas language school...

First stop out of San Cristóbal was the stunning waterfalls at El Chiflón. Great to be back on the bikes and back in the countryside.

We had time on our hands in San Cristóbal so made a supply of power bites - the ultimate cycling energy food...oats, caramel, raisins, nuts...all squished together into little calorific balls and no need to cook - perfect for the inevitable early morning snack stop.

The state of Chiapas is in parts autonomously controlled by the Zapatista Movement, a group of indigenous Mexicans who have been fighing for equal rights and recognition since the 1990s. The Mexican government seems to largely ignore them and they hold control over their own villages in this area. We cycled through many Zapatista controlled villages en route to Laguna Miramar.

We took a quiet road through the mountains and surprised lots of locals who don't often see tourists, let alone tourists on bikes.

Popping out in alpine valleys such as this one was a surprise to us too. It felt more like we were in a corner of Switzerland than Mexico...quite different from the deserts of Baja that we cycled through, back in November.

Reaching 10,000km of cycling on our trip so far and a brief pause taken to pinch ourselves a bit and to reflect on the scores of great people we've met, the hundreds of tortillas we've eaten, the thousands of photos we've taken...

...and then back to business; another day, another dirt road. We bumped downhill and then slogged uphill on unforgiving stony paths in baking heat to lead us to Laguna Miramar...

...often it all got too much and grabbing the opportunity to lie down and snooze after lunch was far more preferable than setting off again straight away.

These dirt roads are not to be disrespected either. This photo was taken at nearly 7pm - the sun is sinking and we are still short of our intended overnight stay by 10km. So we ended up stopping in the next village and camping outside a shop.

The next morning, the local kids crowded around the bikes, asking questons, prodding parts and trying on James' fetching cycle accessories.

Reaching the last village before heading out to the laguna, we stocked up on fruit and veg at this roadside stall. Sweet mangoes, fresh potatoes, soft avocadoes, ripe tomatoes. Mexico tends to sell just a few types of fruit and veg, but what they sell is very tasty indeed.

Having paid our fee to enter the park and being reassured by locals that we could take our bikes with us, we set off for Laguna Miramar, one of the most remote and beautiful natural sites in Chiapas. First though, a white knuckle bridge crossing...

The locals were right, we "could" take our bikes along what was by all accounts a dirt horse track. In parts, it was pretty and the riding was easy...

...mostly though it involved pushing, sweating, swearing and crying our way up and down enormous rutted slopes and over thick tree trunks.

Thankfully the end destinaton proved to be worth the effort. Prime camping spot on the beach at the laguna's edge, where we more or less had the place to ourselves.

Perfect place to spend a rest day and cook up a fried spuds/guacamole lunchtime feast.

Miramar: calm and beautiful in the mornings.

Sweating our way back out to the road was about as much fun as it had been on the way there...but this time we had our priorities right: jump straight in the refreshing river and cool off before doing anything else.

We had two options to leave this remote area. First option: another steep dirt road with possible Zapatista fees to be paid and a less than accurate map of the area. Second option: a lancha boat ride down the river to pick up a more frequently used road and a more direct route to the border. We opted for the lancha and took our bikes for a ride along the river...

A common sight for us in the last few weeks: a local who has spent the morning drinking more than his fair share of booze and passed out in the front of the nearest abandoned building or patch of grass before lunchtime. Unfortunately, sticking out like a sore thumb in these areas, means we attract the attention of most of the local drunks (those who haven't yet got to the passing out stage), leading to many incoherent and baffling conversations.

 

Our final day in Mexico was spent visiting the Mayan ruins at Chinkultic. We soaked up the views and wandered around the impressive remains of a Mayan settlement from over 1000 years ago....and Lee took a short nap at the top.

Over the border into Guatemala and we are welcomed by the sight of the Cuchumatanes mountains - the highest range in Central America...the stage is set for more hills and more dirt roads...

Sarah

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Mexico: an A-Z

May 20th, 2012

 

¡Adios! Where we say hi!, Mexicans say bye! - and so calls of ¡adios! followed us wherever we rode in Mexico, shouted cheerily from passing cars, doorways, family gatherings and hidden bystanders in trees and fields of maize. Prize for the most extreme ¡adios! though has to go to this guy, who hailed us from the top of this 50m electricity pylon and brightened up a dull morning crossing the Istmo de Tehauntepec. In true Mexican style, no harnesses or ropes in sight...

Blues. Turquoise sea meets cobalt sky in the Bahía de la Concepción, Baja California - one of the most stunning sections of Mexican coastline we rode.

Coco's Corner. Old toilets clustered around a disconnected TV set, a ceiling hung with female visitors' lingerie, and a Mexican amputee racing around on a kids' quad bike. Coco's Corner, a bizarre hideout in the middle of the Baja desert, was definitely our most surreal but also one of our best overnight stays in Mexico.

Dirt Roads. "Good roads, bad people; bad roads, good people". So said Baja Barney, who proved his own point by putting us up in his absent neighbours' beachfront condo at Gonzaga Bay, Baja Norte. This 60km stretch of dirt road and sand south of Puerticitos was my favourite ride in Mexico; here, away from the truck-dodging on Highway 1, Baja really came alive with deserted coastline and untouched desert.

Easter. This year we swapped Easter Eggs for a live re-enactment of the Easter story through the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas, culminating in a dramatic crucifixion under stormy skies outside the church in Barrio de los Méxicanos. I still missed my Kit Kat chunky egg though...

Frutas. Inspired by Lee, our very own Man from Del Monte, we got stuck into Mexico's incredible array of fruit. Fresh sandía has never tasted so good as at this roadside stop on the Oaxacan Coast in 40 degree heat. I'm just not sure how we will ever go back to bland, long-life supermarket fruit after this...

Guerrero. After this stay with the monjitas in Vicente Guerrero, I can now add "nunnery" to my list of overnight stops. Things got even better when the Madre insisted on making us coffee, eggs and frijoles to set us on our way the next morning.

Hostalito. Finally, a hostel with some character and charm. Run by Joaquin, a Pan-American cyclist who got stuck in San Cristóbal, El Hostalito was definitely the coolest place we paid to stay at in Mexico. Real beds, a proper kitchen and a great DVD collection - everything a tent-bound cyclist craving some home comforts needs for a few nights!

Iglesias. In an effort to prove just how godly and important they were, the Spanish conquistadores left Mexico with an incredible array of churches. Even the smallest of pueblos we rode through, like this one as we left Puebla, often had an elaborate church fronting onto its central square.

Juncalito. One night became two, and then three at Playa Juncalito, south of Loreto in Baja Sur. We even left one morning and got 10km up the road, before deciding we needed just one more night and turning around again. There was nothing to do but read, doze, watch the Ospreys fish, and feast on our own delicious dorado donated by friendly neighbours.

Kayaking. It doesn't get much better than kayaking at dawn in the Bahía de la Concepción, Baja Sur. An enormous thank you to Fabian, our Warm Showers host who amazingly opened up the home he had rented for his family holiday to four hungry and dirty cyclists.

Laguna Miramar. In my ideal world, every morning would start with a swim in a lake, river or the sea. We managed a lot of early morning dips in Mexico - but few better than this one at Laguna Miramar, where even Bedders was tempted straight from the sleeping bag into the bathtub-warm water.

Mercados. If you still need convincing that supermarkets are A Bad Thing, then you should visit a Mexican market. Riots of colour, smells, and noise, Mexican markets put fun and social interaction back into our daily shopping, and came as a breath of fresh air after the sterility of the Western shopping experience.

Navidad. We might not have had a chimney, but we made up for it with beards, santa hats and roast chicken for Christmas in La Paz, Baja Sur.

!Órale güey! ("Right on dude!") With the rest of our trip in the Spanish-speaking world, it's been great to re-immerse myself in Latin American culture and language. Brushing up on our Mexican street slang with the help of Ares in Puebla and students in San Cristóbal has been a highlight.

Pueblitos. Sarah shares a bleary eyed dawn moment with a pony in Oxaltepec, Puebla as we help Dionisius to harvest the agua de miel (honey water) from the magüey cactus. The real charm of Mexico for us has been in these moments in just some of the tens of tiny pueblitos (villages) we have ridden through each day. It's easy for us to romanticise what is a tough existence, but there is an undeniable appeal in the simplicity, generosity and sense of community we found here.

Quesillo. One of the things we've missed most since we left home has been our beloved cheese. Stringy Mexican quesillo isn't exactly strong on flavour, but served in a cemita like this with milanesa (crispy breaded pork), avocado, tomato and jalapenos, it's hard to beat. I have to admit we stayed an extra day in Puebla just to try this local market speciality - and it was well worth it.

Rancho el Tejón. Wherever we have gone in Mexico, we have been bowled over by people's warmth and generosity. One of our first experiences of Mexican hospitality was with Cristina at Rancho el Tejón in Baja Norte. We stopped by to deliver a package from the infamous Coco, and Cristina immediately invited in to stay the night - before sending us on our way with a huge slab of chocolate cheesecake the next morning. These are the moments that put grins on cyclists' faces.

Sunrises and sunsets. Baja California does sunrises and sunsets like nowhere else I've been. This was the view from Playa Réqueson, where we unrolled our mats and sleeping bags for the night under a palm palapa.

Tortillas. Flour, corn, blue, machine pressed, hand patted, large and small - our daily tortillas changed as we moved south through Mexico, but they remained at the centre of Mexican food we loved. Stuff them with carne asada, pastor, adobado or fish and you have mouth watering tacos; fold them over and fill them with chicken and cheese and you have empanadas; fry them and spread them with frijoles, avocado and cheese and you have crunchy tostadas; stretch to pizza size and add toppings and you have tlayudas. Tortillas will be with us for many more miles to come, but maybe never again in such glorious variety...

Ubiquitous. Wherever you find tortillas, you'll find the comal - a simple but ingenious hot plate over a gas flame at the heart of Mexican cooking. In Amecameca, we feasted on Tlacoyos, folded blue tortillas stuffed with frijoles and white beans and toasted on the hot comal. Whenever we next find ourselves with a kitchen to call our own, a comal will definitely be first on the shopping list.

Volcán Popo. Mainland Mexico has forced us to rediscover our climbing legs - and we were straight in at the deep end when we left Mexico City and climbed between the two sleeping giants of the Popo and Ixta volcanoes. Except Popo isn't quite asleep - the rumblings and ash clouds we saw as we rode through were just the precursor to much more dramatic recent activity, which has seen the area closed off.

Waking Up. I normally find waking up a traumatic process at the best of times, but dragging yourself out of your sleeping bag certainly becomes a lot easier when you open your eyes to morning views like this. Another spectacular sunrise at Bahía de la Concepción, Baja Sur.

Extra Curricular activities (OK, I struggled with X). In between the cycling, and certainly when the parasites invaded in the second half of our time in Mexico, we found plenty of time to indulge in reading. Or at least Lee did until he tragically knelt on his Kindle - at which point he took up knitting instead. No wonder we get so many stares.

"Yo soy de los EEUU" ("I'm from the USA"). Mexico wouldn't have been half as much fun without Lee. Despite his constant struggles with the English language (let alone the Spanish), our shared passions for tacos, beards, Fritos, more tacos, being easily distracted, and - just sometimes - cycling very slowly, made him our perfect third wheel.

Zapatistas. Our final Mexican leg took us into the jungles of Chiapas and Zapatista territory, where in the mid-90s the Mexican government waged war against an indigenous uprising. Even here, Mexican hospitality ruled supreme - proof perhaps that despite the enormous political and social problems that the country faces, the indomitable Mexican spirit and warmth that we have experienced will help to preserve the uniqueness of this fascinating and varied country.

James

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