The last leg of my Mexican journey led me from Oaxaca City to the Pacific Coast, and from there into the State of Chiapas with its beautiful mountain town of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

020 Map

Before I left Oaxaca, a visit to Monte Albán, another pre-Hispanic city with impressive pyramids, was a must. Monte Albán was built atop a mountain outside of Oaxaca City. It was an ancient capital of the Zapotecs, an indigenous people in the South of Mexico. In 1987, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, along with the city of Oaxaca itself. Getting up early and taking the shuttle bus was rewarded with having the entire site almost to myself.

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Pyramids and plazas at Monte Albán.
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During dry season Monte Albán’s surroundings turn into a desert. Only big trees and cacti remain green.
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Some of the many stone carvings from the Zapotec era.
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View from Monte Albán’s tallest pyramid. Oaxaca City can be recognized in the far distance.

While Monte Albán was the political center of the Zapotec civilisation, a town called Mitla served as the religious center during that same era. Now an archeological site, Mitla is situated about 50 km southeast of Oaxaca City. This one-day excursion can be conveniently combined with other interesting sights such as:

•An amazingly huge tree claimed to be having the biggest trunk in the world.

•Interesting weaving arts centers that introduce visitors to artisanal practises of how to produce colorful yarns and carpets.

Hierve El Agua (“the water boils”): a mineral spring atop a mountain with large natural rock formations that resemble cascades of water.

If you are ever around in this area, I highly recommend going on one of the commercial tours, which are very reasonable.

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Cathedral in Mitla
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Cacti are always fascinating. This one called Nopal is a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine. The Nopal pads can be eaten raw or cooked, and are used in marmalades, soups and salads, as well as for traditional medicine.
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The remains of the former Zapotec palace in Mitla.
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El Arbol del Tule (“The tree of Tule”) is a Montezuma cypress located in the center of Santa María del Tule. Apparently, it is the tree with the stoutest trunk of any tree species in the world reaching a diameter of more than 14 m.
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Interesting demonstration at a weaving arts center about how yarns are made from plant fibers and how they get colored using all natural additives.
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Hierve El Agua: A mineral spring atop a mountain with large natural rock formations that resemble cascades of water. These formations are created by fresh water over-saturated with calcium carbonate and other minerals. As the water flows over the cliffs, the minerals are deposited, much in the same manner that stalactites are formed in caves.

Due to my background as a chemical engineer, I was also particularly interested in the Mezcal distilleries in the region. Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico. The word Mezcal comes from Nahuatl, an Aztecan language, and means “oven-cooked agave”.

It is often said that the world-famous Tequila is a special type of Mezcal. However, it is important to know that Tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave and only to be manufactured in select parts of the State of Jalisco. Regional restrictions are less stringent for Mezcal, which is produced in more than half a dozens states in Mexico.

Distilling techniques were most likely not yet known in Mexico during the pre-Hispanic era. The Spaniards began experimenting with the agave plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash, and the result was Mezcal.

In Mexico, Mezcal is generally consumed straight and has a strong smoky flavor. Though Mezcal is not as popular as Tequila, it is exported to some other countries such as Japan and the U.S.

On the web, I found a saying attributed to Oaxaca referring to Mezcal: Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también. (“For every ill, Mezcal, and for every good as well.”).

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Types of agave used for Mezcal production.
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The most valuable part of the agave is the so-called piña, or heart. After cutting off the leaves and roots they are cooked for about three days, often in pit ovens, which are earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks. This underground roasting gives Mezcal its intense and distinctive smoky flavor. The picture shows the cooked agave on the left and the raw one on the right. They are then crushed and mashed and afterwards left to ferment in barrels with water added.
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Mezcal tasting at one of the distilleries.
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Mezcal is generally consumed straight, not mixed in a cocktail. But it is often accompanied with sliced oranges, sprinkled with ground chili peppers and garnished with a larva.

Eventually, I left the city of Oaxaca on March 22 and headed towards the Pacific Coast, where I wanted to check out some of the famous beaches. That stretch was a mere 240 km. However, due to its extremely mountainous topography (approx. 4,000 vertical meters up and 5,500 down), I decided to break it up into three stages, considering towns in between where I could refuel and sleep.

After a short and easy ride to Ejutla on the first day, the second day began with a relatively flat morning and ended with a 30 km climb. I prefer such long climbs rather than rolling hills with alternating ups and down. The latter are much more exhausting. Within an hour, I could observe a change in vegetation from dry and arid to green and lush. The pleasant feeling from seeing and smelling the dense pine forest was similar to that day when I crossed Paso de Cortés near Puebla. I felt extremely content when I finally arrived in San Jose Del Pacifico, a small mountain town at almost 2,690 m above sea level.

The first people I ran into were a bunch of young backpackers, or let me rather call them hippies from Spain, France and Germany. I asked them whether they could recommend any place to stay over night. Barely answering my question, they were much more eager to share with me where I could purchase the best weed in town. I started laughing, and only thought: If you guys only knew how high I will be once I step under a hot shower tonight. Even the best weed in the world could never beat today’s bike ride and some hot water rinsing off the dust.

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Finally gaining some elevation with great views of the Oaxaca mountains.
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Very typical scene in the Mexican countryside where it is common to use donkeys as working animals.
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View of San Jose del Pacifico, a pleasant mountain town at 2,690 m above sea level.
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The center of San Jose del Pacifico, my destination before I biked down to the coast the next day.

The next morning I was thrilled of downhills totalling 4,500 vertical meters that lay ahead of me. But first, I had to endure some foggy 7 deg C and quite a bit of climbing along forested ridges.

I selected a route on mostly dirt roads which was just pure fun. Occasionally, I was a bit uncomfortable though. There were so many different trails, and I didn’t want to take the wrong turn ending up on the wrong side of the ridge. With those often very steep downhills, you definitely don’t want to waste elevation and unnecessarily have to go up the same trail again.

Luckily, I passed through some small villages where I reconfirmed the direction. Surprisingly, I noticed that some people hardly spoke Spanish in this remote region which was at least 40 km from the next main road. They hardly understood me and vice-versa. Despite the really strong accent compared to people living in the city, we somehow managed to communicate throwing in some laughter. Actually no wonder; later I read that Oaxaca is known for its linguistic diversity. It is home to some very rare and endangered languages. Fortunately, most speakers of these dialects also speak Spanish, even if their knowledge of the language is limited sometimes.

Some people didn’t seem happy when I first appeared around the corner. They looked at me as if I were an alien. But once I started a chat with them admitting that my trip is crazy (Un Aleman loco en bici) they broke out laughing. 🙂

It was an amazing ride, and after a while I noticed that I was approaching the ocean. High humidity kicked in and eventually the temperature gauge levelled at 32 deg C. That’s the weather I dislike most. Nevertheless, I still had another 25 km to bike. To avoid dehydration, I took advantage of the many coconut stalls along the road. I can’t think of any better drink to replenish your electrolytes.

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One of the villages on steep mountain ridges where I passed through.
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Despite the killing humidity it still felt quite pleasant to bike again through lush forests after several weeks in arid regions.
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Playa Zipolite

On March 25, I arrived at a happy and expanding beach town called Playa Zipolite, once known for its distinctive hippy vibe. It still has Mexico’s only clothing-optional beach policy, and that’s definitely hard to miss. Unfortunately, most confidence is always with those people who should rather not be doing that. 🙂

Zipolite was a good spot to chill out for a couple of days. My bike and my clothes were in direst need for a thorough wash. I had fun chatting with overwintering Canadians and enjoyed the delicious restaurants in town.

After what seemed to be ages, I ran into the first cyclist since I had left Mexico City. Viona from Belgium started in Colombia and pretty much followed my itinerary in reverse. It was great to have a chat with a like-minded person again and to exchange plenty of information about each other’s upcoming route.

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A classic Volkswagen Vocho (Mexican slang for “Beetle”) at Playa Zipolite. The Beetle was produced in Puebla until 2003 and is still quite common in Mexico.
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Another Vocho converted to a mini pick-up hauler 🙂
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In Zipolite I met a retired German couple who first crossed Asia and now cruise all over the Americas. Their impressive “MAN camper truck” carried everything a cyclist can only dream of, even a torque spanner, so I could finally take off, clean and grease my cranks to get rid of that annoying clicking noise.

I was confident that three days by the beach would get my body somewhat acclimatized to the humidity, before I continued biking along the coast. My ass!!! The next two days to Barra de la Cruz and Tehuantepec, respectively, were a real piece of work. Hills after hills after hills in humidity and heat. It would have been more manageable if I had had a few good views but the road more or less kept a constant distance of about 10 km from the ocean which also made it impossible to enjoy any sea breeze. I was melting and trying to keep my bored mind busy and distracted instead of whining about the miserable conditions.

On the following day, things looked a lot ‘brighter’. The road was flatter. The heat was much more bearable due to constant tail winds. Strong winds prevail in this part of Mexico as I was passing through the so-called Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It is a narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas across an expanse of water that otherwise separates them, in this case the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean (200 km at the narrowest point). This region is considered one of the windiest locations in the world. It is frequented by hurricanes that often lead to rollovers of heavy vehicles on the highway. At the time of my crossing, however, it was just a strong breeze which was just right 🙂

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One of the rare views of the Oaxaca coastline. The closest road to the water was usually several kilometers inland with thick forest blocking the views and the sea breeze. Too bloody hot for a fun ride.
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Massive wind farms at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec which combined form the largest wind park in Latin America.
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While crossing the Isthmus of Tehuantepec I saw about two dozens of these signs. No wonder since this regions is considered one of the windiest in the world. Luckily, the relatively mild breeze was manageable on my bike.

On the next day, the wind was gone, which made the humidity become irritating again. The route was mostly flat, so my butt and palms also send painful signals. I wasn’t in a good mood but was somewhat able to mitigate all those annoyances with music and chocolate. It was really time for me to get back into the mountains, my preferred terrain with a more bearable climate and interesting scenery.

By the end of the day, the road finally started to climb. Soon, I approached the official border sign of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico and home to one of the largest indigenous populations in the country.

I was only a day’s ride away from the state capital of Chiapas called Tuxtla Gutiérrez. The humidity was finally lower. Nevertheless, this part of the state still sees awfully high temperatures even at this time of the year. In order to make use of the pleasant morning temperatures, I was already in the saddle at 6:30 am and managed to arrive in Tuxtla – as locals call it – just before noon on April 1. Two hours later the temperature hit 37 deg C!

Tuxtla is a busy modern metropolis and transportation hub, but frankly speaking doesn’t overwhelm with style. Traffic was not cycling-friendly at all. Well, for me it was just a stop for spending the night. My enthusiastically expected destination was San Cristóbal de las Casas, a highland town known for its well-preserved colonial architecture.

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Milestone achieved! Entering Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico and also the last one on my journey through this country.
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On my way to San Crístobal

San Cristóbal was only 60 km from Tuxtla. The first 10 km completely went downhill. At one point I crossed a major bridge and had a beautiful view of the Cañon de Sumidero, a narrow and deep canyon with vertical walls as high as 1,000 m. What followed was a 50 km climb from 300 m elevation to 2,500 above sea level. Interestingly, the gradient was nearly constant without a single levelled section. That meant almost five hours of monotonous uphill riding. I was prepared with 6 liters of water, lots of snacks and some Spanish podcasts. In the end, it didn’t feel that bad, maybe because I was too excited about a few relaxing days in a beautiful town. 🙂

Eventually, I arrived in San Cristóbal, which is set in a gorgeous highland valley surrounded by pine forest just about 150 km from Mexico’s border to Guatemala. The town’s vibes felt a bit like Oaxaca City, though on a smaller scale. Dominated by the yellow cathedral and a big market square, the cobble-stoned streets are full of small shops selling ethnic products, local chocolate and coffee. All in all a great place to just spend your day reading and watching people.

I enjoyed spending more than a week in this town, before I boarded a bus back to Mexico City in mid April. In early May, I will start a new adventure much further south. More on that in my next blog.

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Crossing Cañon de Sumidero in the early morning.
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The famous yellow Cathedral of San Cristóbal.
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Much of Oaxaca’s history is centred on the subjugation of indigenous groups. The last rebellion occured in 1994, which succeeded in obtaining new rights for these people. The picture shows a cafe which is operated by one of the autonomous cooperatives of the Zapatistas, one of the still politically active rebel groups. These cooperatives allow more economic independence and more dignified conditions for the producers of coffee and agricultural goods.
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One of the lively streets in the center of San Cristóbal.
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Delicious cranberries and all sorts of nuts at the market. The latter are often blended with chapulines (a type of grasshopper) as shown on the bottom right. If you are an enthusiast you may also get chapulines only (see bowl with orange scoop).
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Various types of mole powders and ‘concentrate’ used to prepare mole sauces.
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Interesting to see an old Volkswagen 181 which was produced in Puebla in the 1970’s and sold in Mexico under the model name Safari.
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Can’t get enough of the Vochos 🙂
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Another charming street at dusk in San Cristóbal

For those who are keen, I have collected a few random facts about my trip so far:

  • Time on the road: 10 months with longer breaks in Vancouver, SF, LA, Guadajalaja, and Mexico City
  • Total distance traveled from Alaska to Southern Mexico: 12,685 km
  • Vertical climbs: approx. 115,000 m
  • Coldest Day:  Sep 23 – Chemult, Oregon – 0 degC when I left in the morning.
  • Hottest Day:  Dec 9 – Las Pocitas, Baja California – 39 degC in the afternoon.
  • Longest Day: Jul 6 – Chicken (Alaska) to Dawson City (Yukon) – 173 km until 3 am in the morning due to daylight 24/7.
  • Total number of flat tires: 13…. due to poor performance of my Schwalbe Marathon Mondials (puncture resistance and dirt-road behavior) I went back to MTB tires in Mexico City. Since then I have been enjoying a set of Schwalbe Marathon Plus MTB 2.25. So far the best choice in my opinion. They do not only show better traction on gravel and sand than the Schwalbe Smart Sam Plus 2.25, which I used in Alaska and Canada, but also demonstrate better rolling behaviour and less wear on paved roads.