When I left Mexico City in early March, it took me less than two hours to get out of the metropolis using minor roads which soon led into rural suburbs and farmland. My next destination was the city of Puebla from where I wanted to venture further south into the State of Oaxaca.

019 Map

Mexico City and Puebla are geographically separated by two massive volcanoes, Popocatépetl (5,426 m) and Iztaccíhuatl (5,230 m), which are the second and third highest peaks in Mexico, respectively. The volcanoes make up a common National Park, and both used to carry glaciers until volcanic activity in the 1990s greatly decreased them. My plan was to cross a mountain saddle between the two peaks called Paso de Cortés.

I slept at the foothills in a small town named Amecameca (2,480 m). The following morning, I started a long climb up to the pass at 3,680 m. The road was not particularly steep and had a rather constant gradient, but it took me almost three hours to cover those 23 km during which the temperature hardly exceeded 7-9 deg C until I finally left the dense forest just below the pass. Even though neither one of the two peaks was willing to show its summit, I felt great being up at high altitude surrounded by fresh air and some fellow Germans. Katrin, a German mountain climber who explores various peak in the Americas during her sabbatical, was about to start her ascent of Iztaccíhuatl. We chatted about each other’s trips for quite a while, then two German couples joined our conversation. One of the guys asked me three times where I started my trip since he couldn’t believe it 🙂

I was looking forward to a really speedy adrenaline-rushed downhill but was soon disappointed. The first 18 km on a really sandy dirt road turned out to be full of tricky sand pits which didn’t allow me to go any faster than 20 km/h. It required my full focus so I would not get out of balance and crash.

At one point, I was getting used to it, but all of a sudden an aggressive dog appeared out of nowhere snarling and chasing me for a couple hundred meters. I must have trespassed into his territory. Worried about my ankles, I kept on checking how close he was and almost crashed. How annoying would it have been to nose dive because of a rabid dog? Luckily, I eventually reached the paved road and enjoyed a long gradual downhill into the city of Puebla.

thumb_28621168_Unknown_1024
Approaching Popocatépetl (5,426 m) with Paso de Cortés in the center of the image.
thumb_28621184_Unknown_1024
On my way up to Paso de Cortés, I passed a Christmas tree plantation. At this latitude you need to be at least 2,800 m above sea level to be able to grow pine trees. 
thumb_28621392_Unknown_1024
At the entrance of Iztaccihuatl – Popocatépetl National Park.
thumb_28621776_Unknown_1024
Historic Downtown Puebla

Puebla is the fourth largest city in Mexico with more than two million inhabitants. It was the first city in central Mexico founded by the Spanish conquistadors that was not built on top of the ruins of a conquered indigenous settlement. Its strategic location, between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City, made it the second most important city during the colonial period. The city boasts a well-preserved center, a stunning cathedral and a myriad of churches (70 churches in the historic center alone). The relaxed atmosphere and the large number of cafes make it a pleasant place to hang out and read or attend a Jazz concert which I did one evening.

thumb_IMG_1391_1024
Puebla Cathedral – Built between 1575 and 1640 with the two highest church towers in Mexico. 
thumb_28621904_Unknown_1024
Park at the Zócalo in Puebla. 
thumb_28622032_Unknown_1024
One of the many beautiful streets in central Puebla. 
thumb_28622192_Unknown_1024
Modern Árbol de la Vida (“Tree of Life”) at the Zócalo
thumb_28621616_Unknown_1024
Famous Tacos al Pastor (“in the style of the shepherd”): Corn tortillas filled with thinly sliced pork that has been cooked on a spit, served with onions, coriander and pineapple.
thumb_28621632_Unknown_1024
 Taco maestro with his ‘al pastor’ spit in Puebla.
thumb_28621584_Unknown_1024
A man offering knife-sharpening services. Via a belt he connects the back wheel of his bicycle to the grindstone on his rack and sharpens the knives of his customers. 

I stayed in Puebla for four days. Determined to explore more, I went for a day trip to the neighbouring city of Cholula. Though it is almost a suburb of Puebla, it is far different in its history. It is home to the widest pyramid ever built (wider than any in Egypt) – the Pirámide Tepanapa. Despite this claim to fame, the town’s ruins have been largely ignored because, unlike those of Teotihuacán, the shrubbery-covered pyramid has been so badly neglected over the centuries that it’s virtually unrecognizable as a human-made structure.

Far more easy to notice, especially at night, is the Iglesia de los Remedios, built on top of the pyramid by the Spanish. The ten minute climb is worthwhile since you get rewarded with great views of the town and the volcanoes especially at sunset.

thumb_28621488_Unknown_1024
Widest pyramid in the world – Pyrámide Tepanapa in Cholula. Despite this claim to fame, it has been largely ignored because, unlike those in Teotihuacán,  the shrubbery-covered pyramid has been so badly neglected over the centuries that it is virtually unrecognizable as a human-made structure. 
thumb_28622416_Unknown_1024
Iglesia de los Remedios – the church on top of Pyrámide Tepanapa in Cholula.
thumb_28622224_Unknown_1024
Majestic Popocatépetl at sunset seen from the top of Pyrámide Tepanapa.
thumb_28622448_Unknown_1024
Iglesia de los Remedios lit up at night. 
thumb_28621456_Unknown_1024
Big playground for the kids in front of another church in Cholula.

On March 13, I got back on the bike to continue my ride towards Oaxaca. The first stage was an easy ride to Tehuacán, after which I soon crossed the border to the state of Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico with little infrastructure in the rural areas. Regardless of that, Oaxaca has much to be proud of. Its immense biodiversity and cultural heritage is reflected in having almost every type of ecosystem and many monuments from different epochs, including pyramids, churches and modern office buildings in Oaxaca City, the capital.

The day I left Tehuacán, I decided to follow a dirt-road suggested by Google Maps. And it turned out to be a hilly but amazing route through various fruit and vegetable plantations and tiny villages. Many local people looked at me as if I had just stepped out of a UFO. I guess, for some of them it was not only the first time to see a foreigner but also to ever see a crazy guy breaking “unnecessary” sweats with a heavy bicycle. A couple of times, I refilled my water bottles, and people were extremely friendly when I told them a bit about my story. I had read that the people of Oaxaca are among the most warmly hospitable in the country.

Eventually, I arrived in Cuicatlán, at only 600 m above sea level after I had left Puebla at 2,400 m the day before. The change in elevation certainly brought along a significant change in temperature, humidity, and vegetation. After more than two months at elevations above 2000 m, it was the first time for me to be at such low altitude again.

thumb_28622496_Unknown_1024
The autopista between Puebla and Tehuacán. Officially, cycling is prohibited on these expressways but nowhere this regulation is enforced, so on rather non-scenic sections these roads are a safe and fast alternative to the often crowded non-toll roads. 
thumb_28622672_Unknown_1024
Nicely decorated village road just south of Tehuacán.
thumb_28622608_Unknown_1024
A usual sight along the road in the central Mexican highlands: Towering agave plants. 
thumb_28623168_Unknown_1024
One of the amazing backcountry roads in North Oaxaca. 
thumb_28623040_Unknown_1024
Beautiful cactus blossoms along the dirt road. 
thumb_28622848_Unknown_1024
A convenient store in a small village. I only recognized it after a local lady pointed at that dark entrance. 
thumb_28623504_Unknown_1024
Just before entering Cuicatlán, from where my long climb to Oaxaca City started the next day. 

Oaxaca City was close, but I still had to master a very long climb. Admittedly, 130 km with 2,300 vertical meters is a piece of work, and when you manage to cover only 65 km within the first 6 hrs you wonder whether you will make it to your destination before dusk. Cycling often is a mental challenge. Your mind simply has too much time to overthink scenarios. Do I have enough water? Will there be a place to replenish my bottles? Well, my concerns were blown away quickly when the second half of the distance simply turned out to be great downhill. I had definitely earned it 🙂

I arrived in Oaxaca and barely made it to a hotel before a heavy downpour began. I was again lucky because it would have been the first time to bike under the rain since San Francisco, California, in late October 2016. Hope it will stay like that for more weeks and months.

thumb_28623600_Unknown_1024
Mountains of Oaxaca: Remote, beautiful and some of the best hill climbing terrain for cyclists. 
thumb_28623664_Unknown_1024
A bunch of piglets showing me the way through a mountain village. 

A burgeoning cultural and culinary capital with a beautiful colonial core of tree-shaded streets, Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most captivating cities. So I easily spent five days in and around the city. Oaxaca’s streets have a very tranquil and relaxing feel to them. Much of the joy comes from simply strolling the downtown streets, sitting in a sidewalk cafe, and soaking up the atmosphere. Artists and artisans alike are inspired by the area’s creative atmosphere, indigenous traditions and bright, clear light.

Oaxaca is also a stronghold on the international tourist map. I encountered large guided groups from the U.S., Germany, Poland and France. Nevertheless, at the current scale it is still safe from being similar to Cancún.

thumb_28624448_Unknown_1024
Templo de Santo Domingo, Oaxaca City.
thumb_28623808_Unknown_1024
Art on the balcony, Oaxaca City. 
thumb_28623792_Unknown_1024
One of the charming streets in Oaxaca City. 
thumb_IMG_1515_1024
I had this exact same breakfast three times during my five days in Oaxaca City. I guess I needed a change after so many Mexican meals over the last couple of months.  
thumb_28623920_Unknown_1024
Art on the sidewalk, Oaxaca City. 
thumb_28624208_Unknown_1024
The most interesting artefact at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca: A human skull covered with turquoise tesserae from one of the tombs of the nearby Monte Alban archaeological park.  
thumb_28624400_Unknown_1024
Courtyard of the Museo de las Cultures de Oaxaca – located in the former monastery of the Templo de Santo Domingo. 
thumb_28624320_Unknown_1024
Exhibition of Canadian artist Susana Wald who lives in Oaxaca: Entrada en la selva oscura (“Entrance into the dark forest”) at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.

My personal highlight in town was the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, a museum of regional history and culture, with exhibits on indigenous civilizations, as well as the colonial and the revolutionary era. But when talking about highlights I can not forget the food, either. Oaxaca has its own superb version of Mexican cuisine which includes ingredients such as chocolate, Oaxaca cheese and varieties of mole sauce. The best known of the latter is mole negro. It includes chocolate, as well as chili peppers, onions, garlic and more. Apparently, it is the most complex and difficult to make of the sauces.

thumb_IMG_1558_1024
Typical sampler of Oaxaca specialties: Oaxaca cheese (a white, semi-hard cheese with a mozzarella-like string cheese texture), Tasajo (thinly pounded beef), Cecina enchilada (similarly thinly sliced pork dusted with chili powder), Chorizo (Mexican sausage), and Mole Negro, a kind of gravy made from dark chocolate, chili peppers, onions, garlic and other local spices.
thumb_IMG_1583_1024
A must try when you are in Oaxaca: Tlayuda – a handmade traditional dish consisting of a large, thin, crunchy, partially fried or toasted tortilla covered with a spread of refried beans, asiento (unrefined pork lard), lettuce or cabbage, avocado, meat (usually chicken, beef, or pork), Oaxaca cheese, and salsa. 

In my next blog post, I will cover more of Oaxaca, its coast and my route through Chiapas, another culturally rich province of Mexico.