Sunday, 23 February 2020

Mexico 2020 San Cristobal to Huatulco

Omar at his Casa de Ciclistas en San Cristobal de las Casas
I have mentioned the RAC a few times before. The Red de Apoyo del Cicloturista. The support network for cycle tourers. Omar (above) was one of the founding members. He manages a little group of cabins just outside the centre of San Cristobal de las Casas and hosts cyclists for free every day of the week. He himself cycled for three years around Mexico but has settled now in San Cristobal. Omar is one of these kind souls on this planet. During my time in San Cristobal I spent a few nights around his kitchen table with maps out, drinking coffee and chatting excitedly to other cyclists. 

I was so looking forward to getting here. Although still around 30 degrees during the day, because it is 2200m above sea level the mornings and evenings are cool and one can sleep with a sleeping bag over ones shoulder. What a glorious luxury. I stayed for five nights. 

Omar and Tom from the UK having a hot chocolate in San Cristobal. Comparing routes on the map.
The canyon of the Sumidero in Chiapas de Corso, as nice as Norway or
New Zealand, but filthy and polluted with plastic.
30kms of a beautiful canyon absolutely ruined with plastic.

From San Cristobal it's a 30km downhill ride to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas. Starting at 2200m above sea level you whizz down to 552m. The lads in the bike shop welcomed me as if they had known me for years, showed me the spare room in the warehouse up above the bike shop for sleeping, where the drinkable water was and asked me not to disturb the very healthy looking marijuana plant in the corner of the kitchenette.

Being so hot I knew I wouldn't be staying long but I did make it each night to the Plaza de la Marimba. A marvellous happy place where a band plays each night in the bandstand while hundreds of folk of all ages and all shapes and sizes come to dance Marimba.

Every night at 6pm the Parque de la Marimba comes to life with hundreds of dancers.
A mattress on a pallet in the warehouse above the bike shop for touring cyclists to sleep.
Sherpa was more than happy to hang out in the bike shop warehouse with some friends.
The lads in the bike shop in Tuxtla printed their own t-shirts. They say the locals don't understand what they say.
Cooking breakfast of porridge and apple in the bike shop warehouse.
Dresses bought all over Mexico when girls turn 15. It's like our 21st but just a much bigger deal.
Typical town in Chiapas without a single single-occupancy car in sight.
The waterfall of  El Aguacero
The Tuxtla bike shop lads recommended I head to the El Aguacero waterfall about 50kms from their shop. They said you could swim directly in the waterfall and it was a peaceful place to camp. So after leaving my bike and most of my stuff at the shop at the top of the 800 steps, I swung a pannier with tent, mat, sleeping bag, stove and food over a shoulder and hiked down.
I was able to climb up and swim/bathe in the waterfall.
The best wild camp spot of the whole trip. Fly sheet looking a bit battered.
Having no lighter to light the stove meant it was olives for breakfast.
Messing with the timer on my phone. I stayed all morning reading in the cool shady gorge.
And just by magic some humans arrived to swim in the waterfall.
One had a lighter so I was able to have my porridge after all.
And a 2nd piece of magic produced a man who was delivering plants to a nearby village who arrived at the
waterfall with an open backed jeep and took me and Sherpa up the 3km climb on the dirt track.

Delights along the road
From the waterfall I headed for Cintalapa. I had spent the whole morning at the waterfall so the afternoon only provided time enough for a 50km jaunt up the road. I heard loud roars from a stadium I rode by so parked the bike and popped my head in.

A charreada or rodeo in Chiapas.
Such fun to sit and watch. I had no idea what would happen next.
This military road block looked as if it was made from lego. 
This gorgeous little lady took my order in her PJs at a roadside diner.
She drew my 'un café porfa' order in her notebook and took it into her mum in the kitchen.
The Civil Protection in Cintalapa
When I popped 'bomberos' into Google maps in Cintalapa the 'Protección Civil' showed up. I had never heard of such a place before but Google told me it was open 24 hours which was good enough for me.

When I arrived and announced that I was looking for a camp spot for the night no one really batted an eyelid. They told me to pitch my tent just behind the ambulances and that the bathroom with shower would be free of men in about five minutes. Every time this kind of thing happens I wonder how a Mexican cyclist would be treated if they rocked up to the fire station in Navan looking for a place to stay. There is just no possible way that they would be treated as well.

Hugo, to my left, and I hitched a lift into town at about 8pm the night I stayed. He had to go to work at a concert so I asked if I could tag along. As there was no room left in either ambulance we had to hitch a lift. But the first car that passed (it was completely dark) stopped and made sure the paramedic got to his concert.

The lads at the civil protection. 
All a girl needs is a shelf to spread out her stuff.
10m from the main road. Without doubt the noisiest night of the whole trip.
A little geography lesson on the road with some very lovely children.
Up to my old mischief. Cooking porridge in hotel corridors. 
Entering Oaxaca state
A 200km section of the road is 
Wind farms for miles in Chiapas. 
I had wanted to ride through Oaxaca for ages. 
A speciality of Oaxaca - The Tlayuda. Like an oversized quesadilla. Or a pizza folded in half.

I loved these girls pink, Home and Away styled, school uniforms.
After a hot day of climbing I was rewarded with a surprise view of the Pacific Ocean at sunset.
Taking the coastal road through Oaxaca state
I was just about to head off on the road from Tehuantepec up to Oaxaca city when I got an Instagramm message from a Brittish cyclist called Dan Calverly. He was about 200kms west of me. We worked out over a couple of back and forth messages that if he cycled 150kms east and if I cycled 75kms west we could meet and camp and chat. And so we did. We arranged to meet at kilometer 337 on the Route 200 road.

After spending the morning reading on a shaded hostel balcony I decided to
change my route completely and head along the Oaxacan coast.
It was a really unusual day. Really unusual in a nice way. Unusual in that as a solo tourer usually the only aim of any day is to pedal a bit, eat a bit, find water and then find somewhere safe to pitch the tent. The aim on this day was to meet and camp with a human. How very novel.

I had left the hostal at 12 noon and as there is only light until 6pm it was a big ask to cover 75kms of hilly hot terrain in six hours. A big ask for tortoise paced Michelle. I just needed to keep my head down and keep pedalling.

I was really excited to meet another cyclist and camp together. Myself and Dan had never met but as we chatted over dinner and breakfast we had both said how nice it was to have 'meeting and camping with another cyclist' as the aim for the day. Dan has been cycling for three years and has about another two to go. His name on social media is selfpropelling particle. And he writes well. His blog is worth a look.

We were to meet and camp at a taco restaurant at km 337. We both arrived after dark.
Chatting in the shade over a breakfast of porridge, chia, honey and coffee.
And after a long chatty breakfast Dan headed east and I west.
The lovely warm showers restaurant owners who allowed us camp in their patio.
The morning this photo was taken, the 12 year old girl of the family who I had spent about one hour the previous night helping with her English homework, shook my tent and called my name. It was 5am and very dark. She was catching a 6am bus to school. I was half asleep and she said that her mother asked her to ask me if I had any money that she could buy lunch with at school. She asked me for 20 pesos. 1 euro.

I checked my wallet but didn't have any change so handed her a 100 peso note. I was delighted to give her money and not in the least bit put out that she asked so directly but when I eventually woke up and worked it out, I had given her the equivalent of a days wages in Mexico. It left me with a funny feeling for the day. If I was going to give away that amount I would have preferred the mother to have it as it would have bought some lovely chicken and veggies for the family. But I felt a bit odd that a 12 year old had that money in her pocket to buy sweets and Coke at school. It had never happened before. I had never been asked for money with someone I stayed with so just let it be.

A typical dried up river bed along Rout 200 on Mexico's pacific coast.
Hard for an Irish person to look at after all the lush green vegetation we have at home.
Puerto Escondido
My cycle trip officially ended in the beautiful seaside town of Huatulco, Oaxaca state. I had wanted to be in Oaxaca city by Thursday evening. It was now Wednesday late afternoon so I quickly devised a plan. I had met Saskia Vargas, a Mexican cyclist, in a fire station in Nicaragua a few years before and knew she lived in Puerto Escondido. As I was two hours away by bus I decided to head straight for the bus station in Huatulco and try and catch an evening bus. Once myself and Sherpa were safely on the bus I texted her to say I was on my way to visit her. She told me to head straight for her house, the red castle on the sea front. I couldn't miss it. 

Saskia lived in the red castle at the end of the road overlooking the sea.
9am the following morning. The sea was 10m from Saskia's door. It was already 30 degrees C.

Saskia was very chilled when I texted to say I was literally on her doorstep and coming to stay. What I didn't realise were that four of her very best friends had arrived just the day before from all around the world. They were staying for a week. But there was plenty of room in the red castle. I was offered my own double bed with personal fan.

Saskia is a midwife and had worked for MSF in Honduras a few months earlier. These lovely ladies in the photo below were either nurses or midwives and had all worked in Honduras with MSF at the time. So I landed in on top of a very random but lovely Honduran midwife reunion. They were pretty mean salsa dancers too. In true Mexican style we waited at home until about 11pm and then headed out to the salsa bars of Puerto Escondido. What fun even if it was about 5 hours past my bedtime.

Saskia and José, the best dancers in the whole club.
It was so lovely to meet up after two years with a fellow cycle tourer.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Mexico 2020 Palenque to San Cristobál

Leaving Jose and Elki's home in Ocosingo felt like saying goodbye to family
I mentioned the RAC support group in my last blog post. A group of 200 Mexican's who do or do not cycle but who want to keep us touring cyclists safe and informed about the roads ahead. All is organised via an extremely active Whats App group. 

Nina, the girl in pink above, is an English teacher and mountain biker. The day in May 2018 when Holger and Krzysztof were murdered, Nina was expecting them. They were supposed to stay here in Ocosingo with this gorgeous family. But they never arrived. It was after this incident that the RAC (network of support fo touring cyclists) began. Nina and her dad Jose are one of the most active members. 

My temporary palace for 3 nights in Ocosingo.
I sat in Palenque and waited for a full 24 hours for the rain to stop. I wanted to get on the road but I already had a soaking tent from camping on a wet night so decided to take the bus to Ocosingo. I arrived unexpected and late in the evening but was welcomed as if I was the long lost daughter. Elki (mum/seamstress) got out a spare green tent and set up a little temporary house for me under a tarpaulin in a lush leafy corner of their gorgeous garden. Then she asked me for all my wet clothes and made sure I was warm and dry within minutes of arriving. They have been hosting cyclists for three years. Imagine this level of attention to their wandering nomad guests year after year. And they are just so delighted to help, to offer a cyclist a bed or a hot chocolate or a warm shower. It's unbelievable and never ceases to amaze me.

Elki offered to mend my sleeping bag liner. What a gem.

Nina's mum, Elki, is a seamstress. She was making a very funky pink dress for a customer during the three days I stayed. She offered very kindly to fix any bits of my kit that were in need of a stitch. My very favourite stretchy sleeping bag liner got a hole mended. What a treat. 

I spent an afternoon at Toniná, the huge mayan ruin close to Ocosingo. There are so many sites around this area of Mexico and over the nearby Guatemalan border that tourists are spoilled for choice. This one is not particularly well known and I was one of only a handful of tourists there.

Toniná is yet another fantastic mayan ruin site. This time I had it all to myself. 
I spend time with Elki in the 'mercado' (the market) and each of us bought a corn stick. A stick of boiled corn on the cob with some mayo and spicy red sauce. Surprisingly tasty.

Elote with mayo and spicy tomato sauce.

Little pots of boiled corn lined up for sale. With a dollop of mayo and spicy red  sauce on top.
I had great craic with José, Nina's dad, at breakfast time. As you know I'm partial to coffee and milky fruity porridge in the mornings while José preferred bread. One morning he headed out to the bakery and brought back cinnamon rolls. He put some stringy white cheese inside and popped them into the microwave. So we each had a half bowl of porridge as well as half a place of hot cheesy cinnamon rolls. He had never tasted hot oats before and smothered them with honey.

José sharing warm cheesy cinnamon rolls.

José trying hot milky porridge and raisins for the first time... with LOTS of honey.
On the road from Ocosingo to Oxtuc. 
It's always hard to leave places where you are made so welcome that you feel right at home. But the road calls and I need to keep moving if I am ever to reach Oaxaca. After José and Nina's house I was being handed over to the next family in the next village. Profe Pedro - as he was known - was expecting me by late afternoon the following day.

Different colours/flavours of fried tortilla for sale on the roadside.
The dark brown one, 2nd from left, must be bean flavoured. 
I was standing under a tree in the shade when this guy calls across the road to me and asked if I'd like a grilled corn. He wanted to give it to me for free but I insisted he take at least the market price of 50p. Himself and his wife below were super chatty, we talked about Ireland where no corn or beans grow. They could hardly believe it. 

Patricio was super chatty and like all others was wondering where my husband was.
Chats by the roadside. Patricio's wife and all her different coloured beans for sale.

A large Christmas tree made from empty plastic bottles.
There was a little fairy light in each bottle.
The cleanest bathrooms I had seen in weeks.
Profe Pedro and his family in Oxtuc.
So Pedro's house was my next RAC house on my journey. They all called him Profe Pedro as he was a teacher. Even though I only stayed for 24 hours with this family the experience had one of those lasting effects on me. 

The circumstances were as follows: Pedro was a Kindergarten teacher, had a permanent job and got paid. Silvia, his wife, was a Primary teacher and both she and the other 100 teachers in her school hadn't been paid in a year. She had two choices - to stop and stay at home because she wasn't being paid, or to continue teaching so that at least her kids were learning. It seemed like a heartbreaking kind of situation but not unusual for Mexico.

It was cold. Oxtuc is at about 2000m above sea level. The house was open. By that I mean that all activity happened outdoors in the patio. I had all 5 layers of clothes on me and was still cold. Silvia, the mum, cooked a chicken soup over the firewood (light green lid), made the most delicious hot lemongrass tea (brown lid) and boiled water so that I could have a shower (blue lid). 

They only had running water on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the running water they receive is not drinkable. All over the patio and garden lay huge plastic drums which collected rain water and were filled up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Having no running water really affects every action in everyday life. Cooking, washing dishes, flushing the loo, brushing teeth, making tea. Life was tough for this family and yet they were probably one of the better off families in this large town. 

Stove fueled by wood where Silvia cooked chicken soup and warmed a bit pot of water
for me to have a shower.
Diego, their 3 year old son, was a gas man altogether.
Parents are off to work and kids off to school the morning I'm leaving.
Leaving Pedro and Silvias.
Silvia's delicious chicken soup made over the fire.
Visiting Silvia's Family Home
Pedro's wife, Silvia (Primary teacher) was one of nine children in her family. On the evening I stayed with them, after chicken soup, we headed into town to meet the family. There were multiple sisters and brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews all sitting around the fire in her mum's house. It was such an interesting evening, listening to all the chat, watching various sisters breast feeing their babies as they were cooking over the logs. 

This sister's 1 year old fell asleep on her lap after feeding. She promptly bundled her up in a blanket and rocked her in the baby hammock which hung on the kitchen ceiling. They said all families in Chiapas have one. A baby hammock. I asked about sleep time for babies. But she said the babies here sleep when they sleep, drink when they drink and there is no stress. No one counts hours or has a bedtime. Seemed so stress free compared to Europe. 

The 1 year old, wrapped in a blanket and gently rocked in the hammock
hanging from the kitchen ceiling.
Silvia took me on a tour of her three storey house. Again everything was open. No doors or windows. Most rooms were just 3-sided. And it was cold, really cold. On the roof Silvia showed me the pride and joy of the Chiapas household. It's called a Temazcal. Inside there are wooden planks which hold about five humans. At the back there is a pile of stones. About an hour before use, wood is lit over the stones and is taken out just before the humans enter. One of the family perform a mayan wafting ceremony with palm leaves and there is oil and incense involved. Sounded lovely.

The wondrous Chiapas family roof-top sauna.

50kms after Pedro's house was a 10km climb. I had just had a 2nd breakfast of eggs, beans and tortillas when a group of taxi drivers in the village started joking with me about the climb. One of them offered to take me the to the top of the 10km for 3 euros. I jumped at it.

A kind taxi driver literally hurls Sherpa in his boot. 
The Mexican Diet
I'm slightly amused but kind of horrified at the state of the Mexican diet. I know I'm no holy Mary when it comes to healthy food but I really do try to eat as much raw or plant-based, vegetarian food as possible. With a lot of fresh orange juice, a lot of warm water and a daily can of cold been thrown in. But I have to say I feel so sorry for Mexicans. Because there is so little running water, and no water can be drank straight from any tap all food is packaged. Every little tiendita (little shop) looks like this. A bag of crisps or biscuits or nuts (roasted and salted and flavoured) or cakes costs about 20 pesos (1 euro), which is about half the price of a proper cooked plate of food. 

On displace outside and inside every single shop.

I meet these little trucks and these friendly sales guys all day every day. Each crisp and drink company sends their fleet of trucks off into rural Mexico each day to count stock and rearrange the shiny pink and purple packages. 

Crisp and cake delivery vans.

Sales reps checking stock and rearranging the plastic processed packages of rubbish.

The biggest best trucks are ALWAYS the Coke trucks. 
San Cristobal de las Casas
I had been dying to spend time in this town since my last Mexico bike ride. I knew it was high (about 2500m) so would be cool and had heard great things about it's focus on art and culture. It really is a special place. I stayed for five nights and was really sorry to leave. I chose to stay at a campsite 2kms out of town and met the loveliest travellers and had the most relaxing time surrounded by huge old lefay trees.

I've dabbled in a bit of yoga over the past few years and adore Dublin's YogaHub. I sign up immediately when they release any special monthly offers (usually 112 euros per month). For 3 euros we could attend fireside classes in San Cristobal. 

Yoga by the fireside 3 times per week.
Fabulous yoga room with fireplace at the San Cristobal campsite.
It was always fun when a new truck pulled in. I was the only traveller on a bike but as has happened over the years, I'm always really welcome at these site more suited to overland travellers. This particular Dutch truck has been on the road since 2012. It was the first 4x4 truck/campervan any of had seen with a pop-top roof. 

The Dutch truck which had been handmade in Germany.
One of the most gorgeous of coincidences led to me meeting two fabulous couples in the campsite. Melissa (below) and her hubby Darren were skiiers, snow-shoers, motor bikers, hikers, paddlers, wild campers, dog-lovers, readers and generally gorgeous folk from Vermont, USA. We got on right from the start. They were really interesting yet easy company and we spent a few lovely afternoons strolling around the small cobbled stoned streets of the colonial town of San Cristobal. Each night we would chat for hours by the campfire. 

Melissa overlooking San Cristobal.
Darren gave me some 'fatwood'. Is that the right name Darren? He explained it's great for starting fires. I should use my penknife to slice away a small piece he said. Fatwood is the core of the pine tree and is full of sap which lights very easily. New to me but was delighted with my little gift. 

Darren gives me a going away gift of some fatwood.
On day three of my lovely campsite stay a 1990s VW van pulle in with an English registration. In all the years I have been travelling in both Central or South America I don't think I have ever seen a van from the UK. Vans are first and foremost American and Canadian. After that they are most likely Dutch, Swiss or German. And any of them travelling with kids, for whatever reason, are ALWAYS French. The French travel whether by bike or by truck with their young families. 

The owners of said UK registered VW were Stuart from Scotland and what do you know - Helen from Goatstown, Dublin. Both couples were on a Mexico/USA/Canada trip so we spent evenings by the campfire with all our maps spread out taking notes and comparing experiences. 

Helen and Stuart had really only arrived in Mexico. They shipped their VW from Plymouth, UK to Veracruz, Mexico. Unfortunately their van had been ransacked while in transit. They had lost almost everything except some cooking utensils and their English DVDs and books. We all felt so sorry for them but they had no choice but to restock at the local Walmart and get on with their trip. They seemed pretty upbeat although I'm sure underneath they were gutted.

I had been keeping my eyes out for Mexican wine and was delighted to find a nice bottle to share with this pair. What fun! It was hard to leave.

Me, Helen and Stuart up to mischief over breakfast.
San Cristobal de las Casas

A couple of fuse boxes at the market

A bucket of deep fried grasshoppers at the San Cristobal market. Yummy.

San Cristobal
With Melissa walking around exploring.

Darren and Melissa's truck was a 1962 Land Rover. It went about as fast as me on a bike.
60-80kms per day roughly. Darren made their pop up tent for this trip.