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.
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.
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.
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.”).
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.