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