Mexico, 19th – 31st December 2018
“LOOK CHRIS! LOOK!” I flew up from our sleeping arrangements on the deck of the ferry and pointed out at the beautiful morning ocean. I had seen a spray of a whale far away on the horizon, and I was so excited. IT WAS A WHALE! Chris was also pretty excited, but it was mainly me who for the rest of the morning had my eyes fixed on the shimmering ocean. And to my great delight I saw several more whales, more sprays far away, one time a tail coming up as the big animal made its vertical dive deep into the sea and another time the grey back of one so close to the ferry that it must have almost hit it. It was amazing, but I seemed to be the only one being really excited about it. Everyone else was looking the other way forward onto what was appearing on the horizon to the east. The green, curvy outline of the Mexican mainland and the white city of Mazatlán that the ferry was heading straight and fast towards. And luckily that was something that also made me quite excited. The REAL Mexico, I thought, was waiting over there, a lush and green mountainous landscape, the scene for deep layers of colorful and vibrant history and culture. Baja California with its unique nature and the wonders of the ocean had obviously been something else of its own and now I farewell’ed the whales and joined the crowd looking forward.
A dense, humid heat was the first welcome of the Mexican mainland as we rolled off the ferry. Hungry, as a little dispute with a ferry official the evening before had seen us unable to bring any essential supplies with us on the deck, we now headed for the centre of the big, old town. Here we found quiet and almost empty, colorful streets of old, thoroughly restored buildings, and it was surely very neat, but definitely not the real Mexico I had expected. And the explanation appeared as one white American or Canadian after the other approached us, all excited and friendly as they can be. Some of them were cruise passengers visiting this historic city centre, others expats who lived here and ran little cafes, art galleries and hotels to cater this high end tourism. Some of them very kindly offered us a place to stay and to hang around for a festival that evening, but we honestly longed for something more authentic and also, we had a fair bit of cycling to do to get to our Christmas refuge in a little town, Ahuacatlán, almost 400 kilometres away.
So after having eaten, and fixed both a puncture of mine and a broken spoke on Nathan’s bike and bought some more spokes for Ciaran too, we navigated through the hustle and bustle of the now very authentic and chaotic outskirts of Mazatlán, before we finally rode along on a big mainroad with a wide shoulder. We were on the mainland and on our way! We had got quite delayed in Mazatlán already though, and because we didn’t fancy wild camping here we stopped after only 30 kilometres in a small town with a nice church, a little plaza where Chris got his Country Sign photo taken with help from a few friendly Mexicans, and a hotel where we could sleep safe and sound.
We now had four days to reach Ahuacatlán before Christmas, so some big days on the bikes were required and there were only few road options. We could either cycle on the toll road, the 15D, which had a lot of traffic, but a wide shoulder and officially was illegal for cyclists, or the free road, the 15, which also had a lot of traffic on it, but no shoulder at all. On the first day, we opted for the 15D and by help from a magical path that Ciaran spotted in the bushes above the toll road we entered it quickly and out of sight of any toll officials. However, the use of the shoulder was not as safe as usual, because here in Mexico it was used as a lane for slower vehicles to move out onto to let faster ones pass. But of course, we were the slowest of all the vehicles and I generally found that they all passed us at a safe distance.
Halfway through the day we encountered a toll both and did the only thing we could, which was to just cycle up past the toll bar while smiling to the officials and see what would happen. And all we received was smiles, we could continue our ride on the 15D. Not much happened cycling on the toll road, but throughout the day I was amazed by how green and lush the surroundings were. There seemed to be something growing everywhere and on top of other things growing on top of other things growing. An abundant variation of all kind of trees, bushes and plants, flowers and leaves. It felt so full of life and so different from the desert we had been in more or less since Utah.
Wild camping was also something different here. First of all, all land seemed to be in use and owned by someone and very thoroughly fenced off. Second of all, there were all the warnings about crime, violence and the general unsafety about being out on and along the road after dark. We were told and had read about it before we went to Mexico, and we were told about it in Mexico from the Mexicans themselves, and even though the threat somehow seemed invisible to us, it certainly made me wary about wild camping.
So that night we were allowed to camp in the yard by a restaurant where we had our dinner. And except from the noise of the experience with barking dogs, cock-a-doodle-do’ing roosters and the pumping music from a nearby night club, it was a most interesting experience to share the facilities of this simple home with a local family. Water could be collected in a bucket from a deep well, washing was done in public by a big container of water in the yard, and from here you could also bring water to flush the toilet. Think about how different you must act when there is no running water! And think about how precious that deep well with clean fresh water was to these people! Think about water, just water. It is so essential to our lives.
The next day we decided to try and cycle on the smaller road, the 15, as it seemed to have a lot less traffic. And it started out being very enjoyable to not be passed constantly by roaring traffic and it gave me more time to appreciate the green and mountainous countryside. But as soon as we neared the next town the amount of traffic grew and there was not much space for us to get off the road, so we just had to rely on the drivers’ patience and skill when it got tight. I did not enjoy it so much.
It was Jon’s birthday, and to celebrate it we stopped at a gas station in this next town and Tom and Nathan managed to provide a huge, fluffy birthday cake with candle lights and everything. After the out of tune ‘Happy Birthday’ singing we all enjoyed the cake, except from Jon who was lactose intolerant. Instead he got some fruity ice cream, a pineapple and a big hug (and some chocolate that he also couldn’t eat) from the woman working at the gas station. And then it was on with the day.
For the next 50 kilometres we decided to split up, as Tom, Nathan and Ciaran preferred the smaller road, whereas Chris, Jon and I wanted to swap back to the toll road. And although the heavy traffic roared past us non-stop I still appreciated the more space on the shoulder a lot as the road went up and down the green, rolling hills like a rollercoaster. In the spirit of racing the faster three we got to the meeting point where the two roads crossed just before sunset and just 10 mintues after them (they had stopped for a big tacos lunch though), and to our surprise the other group reported that the small road had been very fine. So we decided to find our next town for camping further along this road rather than the toll road, and after a few kilometers of tight riding in the evening traffic, we made it to the little town Chilapa. Here we were greeted warmly by a family in the first house of the town, which was also a restaurant, and as the young daughter Arlene spoke English, it was easy and straight forward to ask, if they knew a place in town where we could camp safely. Soon we were pitching our tents in their beautiful garden that was as if it was made for camping with flat, grassy areas, shading trees, outdoor bathrooms and showers and no noisy roosters or dogs, only a few rabbits hopping around. And the family was wonderful too and cooked us a great dinner and sat and talked with us during the meal.
It was a bit of a grim contrast to then leave the little paradise the next morning and get back on the road 15. Cars, buses, heavy trucks and motorcycles came constantly in both directions and normally they could just pass each other on the narrow road in a tight flow, but now suddenly we cyclists caused an unusual break in the flow. Long lines of traffic built up behind us as we struggled over hills and around curves without visibility, as we were unable to pull off the road due to the dense vegetation that lined it. I think most of the drivers really behaved well and patiently, but they had to pass us very closely and it just felt so wrong to be on that road. We didn’t belong there, there was no space for us and now, after three days of being constantly dealing with huge amounts of traffic on roads only barely safe to cycle on, I began to feel like mainland Mexico was not a place for me to cycle. If every day was going to be such a struggle I couldn’t see much meaning in riding here, and the immense size of the country felt intimidating – and what would be awaiting us after Mexico in the rest of Central and South America if not just more crazy roads?
To Chris’s and my great surprise Tom, Nathan and Ciaran didn’t seem to find the road dangerous and I began to wonder if our longer time on the road was beginning to wear our tolerance thin whereas the other guys, newer to the road still were thick-skinned and motivated for their adventure. Instinctively I began to dream of a way out and Chris expressed similar feelings. This was not what we wanted to be doing.
Things got a little better when we could once again swap to the toll road, but only until the two roads merged meaning that the amount of traffic increased immensely at the same time as the shoulder disappeared while the road climbed steeply up in the rising mountains on its way to the big town Tepic. It was just horrendous. So when there was an option to take a smaller road that bypassed Tepic that hardly any of the traffic seemed to be using, Chris, Jon and I again decided to part from the other three who wanted to get to a hotel in Tepic. The three of us kept climbing through thick forest on the smaller road, and even though it wasn’t perfect the glimpses of appreciation and joy over the place we were that flashed through me were a dear reminder, that I still liked this, wanted this under the right circumstances. It was just a matter of finding them.
Once again we asked permission to camp at some people’s property and they kindly allowed us to stay even though they were about to leave the place for the night. Such trust in strangers in a country where we heard so many warnings about ‘bad people’ was something to think about.
As both Jon and Chris had caught some kind of cold over the last few days and I assumed it would get me soon too, we called our team ‘Team Sniffles’, and despite the heavy heads we woke up early the next morning, motivated for one last long day of cycling to reach our destination and a well-earned rest in Ahuacatlán. We appreciated our choice of bypassing Tepic as the road was much quieter and with a good shoulder again. We were up in the highlands now with low mountain peaks and old volcanoes popping up everywhere in the green landscape and a more cool feel in the air. It was actually rather lovely in the early morning light. At the other side of Tepic we joined the toll road again and held our breath when we again sneaked past the toll both with innocent smiles to the officials who totally ignored the siren our offence set off. We climbed and climbed as the road kept snaking over the big hills, or low mountains, or hilltains as they should rightly be called, until a mighty, mighty downhill dropped us into the valley of Ahuacatlán. What a great relief, Team Sniffles had made it – and even arrived before the Fast Cycling Taco Eaters!
Located off the big roads and overlooked by a huge cone of a volcano the little town with its colorful houses immediately won my heart. It seemed like exactly the little, real Mexican town I had dreamed of and I was ready to make myself familiar with it during the holidays as we checked in at Hotel Principal for 10 nights. The hotel was owned and run by the extremely welcoming, English speaking man, Andres Montero, who welcomed us warmly together with his sweet wife and his 19 year old son, also called Andres Montero.
It was a lovely little hotel with a beautiful courtyard overgrown with plants where we could sit all day and night chatting, cooking and playing games. Andres, the father, was very excited to have such a group of adventurous foreigners staying and he was eager to show and tell us all about his place. So the next day he guided us around the little town, showed us landmarks, an old and locked off church and beautiful old haciendas that had been home of the important people of the place. He sure was a knowledgeable man who could remember so many anecdotes and facts that in the end he wore not just us but also himself out, and we eventually finished the tour before the visit to the tequila brewery. Our group then split up into six individuals on secret missions to buy and/or create a Christmas present for our respective Secret Santa recipient. On the ferry to Mazatlán we had each drawn a random name of one in the group to whom we should give a Christmas present, and due to our intense cycling schedule since then, none of us had had the chance to do the Christmas shopping until now, the very last open hours in the little town before the 25th of December.
After all Secret Santa missions were completed we could finally sit down the rest of the evening and relax. Andres’ son, Andres, also spoke in excellent English and he was keen to practice and also to hear about the way we lived in our different countries. He was a really good kid who asked interesting questions, and with us being from many different countries there were many interesting and eye-opening differences and I felt I learned a lot too about life in Mexico for a young human being. At some point during the conversation Tom and Nathan had gone out for some tacos, and they only returned long into the night after having explored the tequila culture for themselves.
The 25th was the exciting Christmas Day which we spent entirely in the courtyard playing games and surprising each other with the Secret Santa presents. Some had been creative building camping chairs, Tom got a nicely drawn picture, I myself got a selfie-stick, Chris got socks and Jon got honey and eucalyptus oil for his sniffles. We played card games and Time’s Up and when the guys wanted to play pasta-poker (with little pasta pieces instead of poker chips) I enjoyed a couple of hours’ true Christmas peace with a candle light and my book listening to Danish Christmas songs and thinking about my family and Christmas at home, which fortunately I had glimpsed via Skype the day before (we celebrate Christmas on the 24th in Denmark). And that was our Christmas of 2018.
The next day I was going to execute an exciting plan of travelling by bus to Mexico City to spend three days there with some of my high school friends, who by chance were spending the holidays there with their families. It was really an extreme contrast from travelling by bicycle and also it was like being thrown back in time to my days as a backpacker buying bus tickets and finding the right bus, soaring through the night in a soft, but too short bus seat at high speed in a daze of half-sleep and then suddenly finding myself in the metro of Mexico City in the early morning on my way to a hostel. It felt so surreal, but Mexico City’s Coyoacan district was green, fresh and lively in a way I had not imagined, and when I fell into the embrace of Anne, one of my oldest friends, I almost cried of relief and disbelief.
We spent three days together talking and talking and talking, quickly overcoming the distance in time and space that had been built up, while strolling the streets and parks of Coyoacan, drinking coffee and juices and eating tacos from hectic food markets. We also went on a sailing trip in Xochimilco where colorful boats, floating music bands, kitchens and souvenir stalls filled up the fresh canals with Mexican families and foreign tourists in an atmosphere of just enjoying life carefree and happily. I also let myself submerge in the immense collection of artefacts and history on The Museum of Archeology and in the crooked, narrow corridors of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s bauhaus-like studios (I didn’t visit Frida Kahlo’s house because it was surrounded by a crowded queue of people at all time during the opening hours) and most of all I submerged myself in the underground wonder of the metro system, which excited me greatly, I guess because I haven’t used such means of transport for so long. I loved walking through the long underground maze of corridors and steps, following the right signs, sharing the ride with a bunch of strangers, watching for the icons that mark every station (so that also the people who can’t read can use the system) and connecting the colored lines of tracks. It was a great game and at many stations had a certain theme on display, most amusing was the London Underground/Everything From Britain Is GREAT-theme.
And then after three intense days I was back on a bus bringing me through the night back to Ahuacatlán and Chris almost like if it was magic. Had it all really happened? The gifts from Denmark (brown bread, liqourice and Danish poetry) told me that it had.
I arrived back in Ahuacatlán on the morning of my birthday, and both that celebration and that of New Years Eve the next day went peacefully like I wished for. I recovered from my lack of sleep after the nightly bus rides as well as the cold that had finally also caught up to me. It was just what I wanted, finally I felt like I was relaxing like I had wished to do in Ahuacatlán spending half the day in bed and the other half strolling around in the little town and sitting at the plaza drinking coffee or fruit juice.
At New Years Eve we went to sit on the plaza in the evening to see what would be going on on this special night and as the church bells kept ringing and people kept filing through the big portal and into the light in the big building we followed, and there witnessed the first 30 minutes of the catholic mass filling the enormous room with priests, chanting, candle lights and incense. Then we retreated to our own celebration of memorising some of the many experiences of the year like cycling in the cold winter in Kazakhstan and China, celebrating getting to Mori with Sunny, reaching the cycling paradises of South Korea and Japan, crossing the Pacific Ocean on a cruise ship with Jack and Barbara, exploring the backroads with forest and bears in Canada, how our new friends Ned and Rachelle, Hal and Tracey had made it possible for Chris to fininsh his second book and given us five weeks of settled life in Canmore with the lovely little Guss, cycling the first section of the Great Divide and then visiting the national parks of Utah and Arizona, Baja California with cactuses, whale sharks and ‘the boys’… what a year we’d had and then midnight came and the fireworks banged outside our window. A new one could begin.
Mazatlán – Ahuacatlán – Mexico City – Ahaucatlán
Distance cycled: 379 kilometres