Every time when more and more people ask me about my whereabouts or whether I were still alive, I realize that my blog update is overdue. So here we go with more stories about my Mexican adventures:
After the overnight ferry ride across the Gulf of California, Janosch, Rik and I pushed our bikes ashore and smoothly rolled into Mazatlán on December 20. The first thing I noticed was the radical change in weather. Even though La Paz and Mazatlán are less than 500 km apart, the high humidity immediately made us break a sweat. We definitely left the desert and entered the subtropics.
Mazatlán is a large resort town at the Pacific shore in the state of Sinaloa with sandy beaches lining a 21-km promenade. We spent two full days in town and were very lucky that Janosch’s Mexican friend and her Swiss husband were in town. They showed us around and brought us to a really nice seafood restaurant where I was finally able to enjoy ceviche for the very first time. Ceviche is a seafood dish popular in many costal regions of Latin America. It is typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with garlic and chili peppers. Anybody who is into Japanese sashimi will love it unless you can’t cope with spicy food because as many other Mexican delicacies ceviche is usually quite pikante.
The State of Sinaloa is not only the birth place of El Chapo, one of the biggest Mexican drug lords ever, but also a key area of the Mexican drug trade. We were aware of that, spoke to many people about the current situation and resumed our ride south on December 23.
As in many other countries, there are basically three categories of risks: 1) Organised crimes, 2) Random crimes, and 3) Traffic. The first is pretty much invisible to tourists like us. And random crime is a global phenomenon which exists everywhere and usually happens if you are at the wrong place at the wrong time. So far, we have been all safe (knocking on wood that we shall stay like that). The third safety concern, traffic, needs constant mitigation. You must always plan your routes diligently using various maps and Google street view, talk to locals, and refer to other cyclists’ blogs. I know that I am a meticulous planner, and that often makes my fellow bikers crack a joke but hey, I love maps 🙂
I am not a fan of all the paranoia people spread these days especially those who have never been to Mexico. Keep a low profile, know where you are and be alert. That’s what you need to do. Many U.S. cities with their massive numbers of drug addicts and hobos made me feel a lot more uncomfortable than places in Mexico.
I had checked several blogs which warned of the road conditions and the traffic but we took advantage of the new autopista, a tollroad with wide shoulders similar to an expressway, which now fully connects the city of Mazatlán with the state of Nayarit, our next destination. About 220 km of easy and flat riding lay ahead of us over the next two days. It was not the most spectacular scenery but at least we were able to move on quickly. For such rather mundane stages, I always put some motivational tunes on or kill time by having a few day dreams. Those long straight roads in Baja California taught me well. 🙂
According to the many signs we passed, cycling on the autopista is illegal. But our impression was the opposite. While passing the barricade at the toll station officers were so cheerful when you shouted a friendly Feliz Navidad (“Merry Christmas”) at them. And many policemen in their heavily armed vehicles waved at us as well. Not sure whether we were enjoying an extranjero (foreigner) bonus or whether they had no clue about the no cycling policy. 🙂 In any case, the toll road was a wise choice.
We arrived in Escuinapa, a small town just off the main highway, and were able to find a simple yet clean hotel room with three beds for merely 450 Pesos (24 USD). Prices for accommodation are supposed to stay that way which definitely rules out any sort of camping for quite a while. There are days when I really miss those awesome spots where I pitched my tent up north in Canada or the U.S. but I can’t deny that having a solid roof over your head, power outlets, wifi and a private shower is a highly appreciated luxury. These parts of Mexico also don’t offer any camping related infrastructure, so from a security point of view, staying at someone’s house or in a hotel is a must.
On Christmas Day we arrived in another small town named Ruiz. After the deserved shower we started searching for a place to have dinner. Soon we realized that our choices were limited since nearly all people were with their families, either at home or at the local Christmas market. Eventually, Janosch, Rik and I agreed on having our Mexican classic again: Tacos con carne asada. You can never do anything wrong with that, not even on Christmas Day. 🙂
The effortless way of cycling was over on Day 3. We were headed to Tepic, the capital of the state of Nayarit. Somehow, this stage felt like one of the most exhausting days I had in a long time. The combination of high humidity and almost continuous ups and downs drained our bodies immensely. Luckily, there were plenty of stalls where we could refill our bottles with water and electrolytes. Upon arrival in Tepic, it was obvious that we had arrived in the central Mexican mountains. The weather felt cooler and a lot drier. Under such conditions, I don’t even mind more hills.
For the last few days, I was impressed by the sheer number of cars with U.S. license plates. There is a significant crowd of U.S. based Mexicans traveling south to visit their families at this time of the year. In Ixtlan del Rio, a charming town where we arrived on the next day, one of the local cafes was packed with Mexican youngsters, and everyone chatted in English rather than Spanish.
The journey continued and soon we crossed the border to the state of Jalisco which is famous for its exquisite agave liquors. Tequila is a global favourite everybody knows. Needless to mention that we had to take a day off in the town of Tequila which also is a UNESCO world heritage site. Besides the many neat houses and plazas, a tour in one of the local tequila distilleries was a must. We decided to have a closer look at Jose Cuervo’s downtown factory. The one hour tour was a bit rushed but I can highly recommend joining any of such offerings even if it is just for the complimentary tequila tasting 🙂
From Tequila to Guadalajara, it was only an easy 65 km ride. Traffic became of course a bit denser but soon we took advantage of the municipal bike lane system. Only 15 km before we reached downtown, I heard someone shouting my name. I turned around and saw a truck parked at a parking bay with my friend Rik leaning out of the window. Rik had been a few hundred meters behind me and now he was sitting in a truck??? I was clueless about what was going on. Apparently, a few kilometers back the truck driver had waved him over asking for help to push his truck due to some technical issue. Rik stopped and parked his bike in front of the truck. They began pushing together and accidentally the truck rolled over this bicycle. I looked at Rik and said: “Are you kidding me? So where’s your bike?” He sadly pointed at the back of the truck. His bike’s rack was bent and he wasn’t sure whether anything had happened to the frame and wheels. Long story short, we were all shocked, but a day later after a thorough check at a local bike shop, it turned out that Rik was very lucky. His bike only needed minor repairs. We all learned a lesson: Never park your bike in front of a truck 🙂
On December 29, we arrived in Guadalajara, the capital and largest city of the state of Jalisco. With a metropolitan population of approximately 4,500,000, it is Mexico’s second most populous metropolis behind Mexico City, and one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Guadalajara is not only an important IT and services hub but also a cultural center of Mexico, considered by most to be the home of the famous Mariachi music. You probably all know the traditional Mexican folk music played by those friendly smiling musicians wearing large sombreros. That’s Mariachi. 🙂
Guadalajara was the first big city on my journey through Mexico. And it was also a great place to welcome the New Year. Due to their shorter schedules and hence different itineraries, Janosch and Rik continued their journey after recovering from the New Year’s Eve tequila shots. I decided to stay in Guadalajara, take a month off and enrol in a language course, since I had been thinking of studying Spanish more systematically for a while.
Meanwhile, I have been in Guadalajara for almost a month, and I must say that this place really is amazing. It is such a vibrant city, not only because of the large number of universities and a significant number of students, but also because of the abundance of historical buildings and the amazing weather. Even in January temperatures reach at least 25 deg C during the day. The sky is always blue, and the humidity is very low due to its elevation (1,500 m) and distance from the ocean (200 km). All of that certainly drives people outside and makes the city appear very lively.
If you tap into a pool of European languages, Spanish is not that difficult to learn. I am quite happy with the progress I have made so far. I started with a daily 4-hour group class but after a week and a half I decided to only take 2 hours of private tutoring per day because conversational practise is the best way to learn a language. It will, however, still require some time and effort until I am fully able to understand what locals say without asking them to slowly repeat their sentences at least once. It is amazing how fast some people speak.
In the afternoons and on weekends, I explored the city and the region on various walks and day trips. If someone intends to visit Guadalajara, the following highlights (also shown in my pictures below) are must-sees:
- Centro Histórico is filled with many colonial era buildings and plazas, and boasts several important mural paintings by Jalisco-born José Clemente Orozco, one of Mexico’s most important artists.
- Just on the Northeast edge of Guadalajara lies an impressive canyon carved by the Rio Grande de Santiago: Barraca de Huentitán National Park. The difference in elevation between the rim of the canyon and the river is approximately 600 meters, which makes it a slightly smaller scale version of the Grand Canyon in the U.S.
- Located less than an hour drive south of Guadalajara Lake Chapala is the largest lake in Mexico. Chapala and its neighbour Ajijic are small picturesque towns with a surprisingly large community of American retirees of which hardly anybody speaks Spanish!
- One other really recommendable part of Metro Guadalajara is the town of Tlaquepaque. I loved that place because it really feels like what people who haven’t been to Mexico think of when they picture a typical Mexican village setting. You can spend hours in those lovely stores which offer a huge selection of arts and crafts. From traditional decoration to modern accessories and furniture. One thing, however, I was not very aware of is that Mexicans have an “obsession” with death. It’s enough to scare the life out of you. But in Latin America and especially in Mexico, people see things differently. Dying, while not to be recommended, is certainly not to be feared. Rather it is to be celebrated as a chance to pass into an afterlife, a parallel existence that offers its own opportunities and challenges. And that is why artists in Mexico have, for centuries, picked up their brushes and chisels to paint and sculpt their impressions of death. Indigenous Mexican art celebrates the skeleton and uses it as a regular motif. There is even a holiday called “Day of the Dead”, which is celebrated through the country.
Overall, I must say that Mexico has been treating me really nicely. Amazing food, super friendly people, perfect weather, and that bit of positive craziness in the streets I was missing during previous months north of the border. Next week, I will be back on the bike to explore more of the central highlands.