I had a fantastic time in Guadalajara studying Spanish and enjoying the city life for a whole month. It was definitely a full fledged comfort zone which made it really hard to leave the city on January 29.
It was so tough to get back onto the bike, not physically but mentally. I had never experienced such a feeling on this trip before. I suppose, it was due to the fact that I was going to be exposed to all those elements again which typically define a discomfort zone: Uncertainty, exhaustion, weather, and changing locations almost every day, among others.
My rough plan was to head east and visit some of the most beautiful cities in Mexico such as: Guanajuato, followed by San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro and eventually Mexico City, which is one of the biggest metropoles in the world. That amazing itinerary was my motivation to leave downtown Guadalajara at eight in the morning. The air was crisp and no warmer than 8 deg C. After a few hours of biking, I felt slightly better. Moderate temperatures, sunshine, and a safe shoulder along the autopista (the Mexican expressway) made things quite bearable. A few hours later, I actually felt quite happy again.
I was heading towards a small town where Google Maps had indicated a little hotel. However, once I arrived, I was told that it had run out of business a few months earlier. Left without any choice, I continued cycling for another 25 km. I never expected I would bike 129 km with most of the route above 2000 m elevation on my first day. So you can imagine how glad I was when I arrived in Jalostotitlán. I decided to stay at a place called “The White House”. For 9 USD you get a mattress with clean sheets on top of a concrete plinth, a shower and a toilet, plenty of space to park your bike, and a set of two plastic chairs with a table (see picture). I think that was a great bargain. 🙂 After nine hours of sleep, my legs felt quite sore in the morning. That soreness happened the first time since I had left San Francisco a few months ago but by far not as severe as those first couple of weeks when I first started my trip last year.
The city of Leon was my next destination. Having learned my lesson, this time I booked a room in advance to make sure I wouldn’t have to add extra miles again. 🙂 It was another day with lots of rolling hills but generally quite pleasant. I had read about the religious significance of that region and soon encountered many thousands of pilgrims along the road (see picture). These people were walking or cycling from Lagos de Moreno to San Juan de los Lagos (48 km), which is home to an image of the Virgin Mary said to have been responsible for a number of miracles, dating back to 1623. Pilgrims visit year round but the Día de la Candelaria, or Candlemas, on February 2 is the biggest of the year. The media reported that more than a million would arrive on that long weekend. No surprise, that I met so many on the road.
In the afternoon of January 30, I enjoyed a long downhill and arrived in Leon with plenty of time to walk around in the historic center and to enjoy a fine Mexican dinner and a couple of espressos with cookies. Coffee options in Baja California were usually very slim. But ever since I got to the Mexican Mainland great coffee is pretty much available everywhere.
On the next day, just outside of Léon, I had an interesting encounter with a Mexican cyclist, who had spotted me from his car and then approached me at a traffic light. We chatted for a few minutes and then exchanged Facebook contacts. Later on Facebook, I found out that he had filmed me for a few seconds. It’s always great to run into local people who share the same passion and who are genuinely curious about your journey.
On January 31, I finally arrived in Guanajuato, a beautiful colonial mountain town, which many tourists (foreign and local) consider to be the most beautiful town in Mexico. The historic town center and the adjacent mines were granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987. I thought it would be good to spend two nights in town. It used to be a major silver mining town, and many of the mines are still active. The city is built on very hilly ground, so virtually every point in the city is on a slant. There is also a network of underground tunnels that serve as roads making this place really unique in the world. At this point, you can imagine, that my last few miles were quite a challenge. Riding your heavy bike up those steep roads at an elevation above 2,100 m make your heartbeat reach its limit. The cobblestone pavement drove me nuts, yet my full attention was required in those pitch dark tunnels. In such situations, decent lighting on your bike significantly increases the probability whether you get out of the darkness alive. Furthermore, you need to trust Google Maps, else you have no chance to navigate in such a city. When I eventually got out of the last tunnel, I was seriously stunned facing amazing architecture which made me feel like being in a very old but very well-preserved European city. Have a look at the pictures to get an idea about how stunning this place really is.
One thing that kept me wondering is how a city like Guanajuato, that is located high up in the mountains and hardly has any precipitation, manages its water supply to the more than 700,000 inhabitants. I tried to do some research and it seems that the Guanajuato state faces challenges similar to those you frequently hear about from California. The available groundwater is beng pumped and depleted at an unsustainable pace due to the rapid population increases across the region combined with growing industrialization, in particular agriculture. A recent report emphasised how alarming the situation actually is, but the state government refused to accept and publish the findings as it would have ignited a massive political confrontation. If current use patterns and population growth persist, groundwater supply will be essentially pumped dry over the next 30 years. Sooner or later, hard decisions as to water priority will have to be made: Large farms or large cities? Such a challenge is not unique to parts of Mexico but will probably be a global issue in the years to come.
Still fascinated about this place, I continued to my next stop, San Miguel de Allende, on February 2. It was only a 3.5 hour ride but one of the best since I had arrived on the Mainland of Mexico. I could feel that I had had a rest day since my legs were much stronger and felt like back to normal again. Guanajuato traffic was manageable, and soon I had the road to myself. Right before I ended my day, I enjoyed 600 meters of gradual climbing, fresh air and good views until I reached San Miguel de Allende, a nice small colonial town, about 280 km northwest of Mexico City.
You can find quite a significant number of Americans who chose San Miguel as a winter or retirement residence. Combined with well-off Mexicans, who have rediscovered San Miguel as a retreat from Mexico City, San Miguel has created an eclectic mix of old Mexican charm, warm hospitality, and a modern culinary scene that goes far beyond classic tacos or tortas. Lonelyplanet’s guidebook calls it a Disneyland for Gringos (Americans) and Chilangos (residents of Mexico City) which at times feels like it because the town is almost too good to be true. 🙂
After a day of exploring San Miguel on foot and indulging in lots of food and coffee, I biked to the city of Querétaro. Some articles I read say that it’s believed to be one of the fastest growing cities in the northern hemisphere thanks to it being in close proximity to Mexico City and hence an ideal base for international industries.
I spent a great day with my French friend Ludo, who recently moved here from California. He introduced me to his house mate Nestor who runs an great bike store in town (bikeness.mx), took me to two birthday parties, showed me around town, and brought me to his friend’s place to watched the Super Bowl Finals with a bunch of other Mexican friends. Those were some packed 1.5 days and totally good times at a place that was not in my original itinerary.
There were about 220 km remaining to reach one of the biggest cities in the world: Cuidad de Mexico (CDMX or Mexico City). The first 180 km entirely followed the autopista, not really scenic but safe and quick, despite the 1500 vertical meters. Eventually, I arrived in Tepotzotlán, a small town about 40 km north of downtown CDMX.
Since many people or cycling blogs warned me about Mexico City’s notorious traffic, I initially considered taking a bus or van but eventually I biked all the way into downtown CDMX. Apart from about 5 km of dense traffic with some crazy bus drivers, it went a lot smoother than I expected. Probably, the ride wasn’t a big deal to me at all since I had experienced city biking at its worst in Shanghai many times before. Compared to Asian metropoles, believe me, CDMX is a bliss 🙂
Mexico’s capital is loaded with culture, food, big contrasts and many interesting places. More on that on my next blog soon.