Mexico, 2nd-9th January 2019
We took the back road out of Ahuacatlan and it felt good. Not just good to be cycling again after ten days of rest and relaxation, but especially good to be cycling on the back road. The busy, dangerous main roads we’d been forced to take before Ahuacatlan had us both feeling like packing up and going home, but being on the back road brought back the joy of cycle touring. By the end of the first day of sharing the potholed roads with cowboys on horseback I was exclaiming to Dea that I had fallen in love with cycling in Mexico again. The following morning we sat and ate breakfast on a patch of grass at the side of the road in a little village and watched a man milking his cows across the street, a rooster strutting proudly past us, pink flowers overflowing from a wall as a cat peered out from behind a cactus, and the feeling was confirmed.
The only disadvantage of the back roads was the increased amount of our time spent sweating up steep hills, and, for me at least, the speed of our descents on the other side. One of my front brake arms had seized and I was unable to release it from its holdings, as I had managed to circle out the centre of its screw so that an Allen key could no longer release it. It was something that a more sensible man would have fixed during the ten days of rest in Ahuacatlan, but there was just so much damn relaxing to do there. I cursed my lack of sensibleness with every screaming descent that I struggled to control with just my back brakes, and prayed for a miracle in the next town of Etzatlan. That miracle arrived as we stood in the hot sun close to the busy central square looking for a hotel, and came in the form of a teenage boy asking me in English if I needed any help. Ramone introduced me to his father, Ruben, a friendly, English-speaking man, who originally came from Etzatlan before moving to the United States where he now earns a living as an electrician and handy-man. After receiving some good advice about where we might find a hotel, I asked if Ruben knew where I might find a workshop to help me release the stuck screw, and his response was to say “I’ve got some tools in my truck, I’ll get it out!” And sure enough, Ruben did manage to get it out, filing down the sides of the screw in order to grip it with his wrench. I then asked if he could help with the front derailleur screw, which had suffered a similar circling-out fate (due, it seems, to my worn Allen keys, which, interestingly enough, as a survivor of my very first bike tour in New Zealand in 2009, are my oldest possession). It was not possible to file down this screw due to the complex angles, but Ruben wasn’t deterred, and even after nearly taking his hand off with a power tool, he eventually released this screw too with a pare of pliers. My bike was suddenly fixed, a little miracle provided by a kind stranger.
If all of this wasn’t already amazing enough, imagine our joy to find ourselves following a bike path for most of the next two days. Somehow an old railway line had been converted into a paved path for something like 100 kilometres, a path every bit as lovely as any cycle path in Holland or Denmark, and we really could have believed we were in one of those countries, if it wasn’t for the volcanoes on the horizon. The flat path helped us quickly get out to see some pyramids, which I was strangely allergic to, and then south to the not-very-nice big town of Ameca, the launchpad for our next foray into the mountains. It was a surreal couple of days, absolutely fantastic to see that Mexico has invested in creating long-distance cycle paths in at least one place, and only slightly disappointing that the only people other than us using it were all on motorbikes.
A 700 metre climb brought us to the small town of Quila, where we sat and ate lunch in the peaceful town square. As we went to continue we crossed a street and saw a quite extraordinary sight. A beautiful horse that had passed us in the square a little earlier, and a mariachi band that had waved at us from their van as they passed us even earlier in the day, had now combined to the most extraordinary effect. We stood and watched spellbound as they advanced down the street towards us, the band playing typically upbeat Mexican music, and the poor horse dancing to it with a graceful sense of timing and rhythm that I myself could never hope to achieve. It was a wedding parade of some sort, the bride sitting behind this bizarre scene in a car, presumably on her way to the church. I fumbled for my camera and managed to shoot a video of the action, but unfortunately the zoom was on and I was preferring to watch things live rather than paying attention to where I was pointing the lens, so there is rather more time paid to a man’s crotch than I would have liked, but in any case, here is the video, for your viewing pleasure:
After such a long climb we were naturally looking forward to the descent, but on this occasion we were robbed of our reward. The road went downhill through natural forest and had almost no traffic on it, and as such it should have made for perfect cycling, but unfortunately the entire road had been paved with cobblestones. There was not even a narrow strip of un-cobblestoned road at the sides, and we were forced to suffer a long, bone-jarring afternoon, with progress just as slow going down as it had been going up. This slightly dampened our enthusiasm for the back roads, but an enforced seven kilometres on a main road after the descent was timely. “It’s good to get a reminder why we are taking the small roads,” Dea said, as we breathed a sigh of relief to leave the madness of the speeding vehicles on the shoulder-less road, and turned off onto a gravel road and another long climb into the mountains.
Vindication for taking the road-less-travelled came with the spectacular sight of a man sweeping his donkey, literally taking a broom to the animal’s flanks. Such wonderful things you cannot hope to see on the highway. And after another long day of climbing, we rolled into the town of Chiquilistlan hoping to find a hotel for the night, when we were stopped by an English-speaking man. He asked me where we were going and when I asked him about a hotel in town his response was simply to say, “ Why don’t you just sleep at my house?”
He was a short man with a kind face, shiny eyes, and a wide smile that sat beneath a typically-Mexican moustache. He introduced himself as Nacho. “And this is Mini-Nacho,” he added, nodding at the small boy attached to his hand, his son. It was obvious from the first moment that Nacho was a good guy, someone we could trust, and it was easy to accept his offer. He walked us back to his simple home, adorned with wonderful paintings on all of the walls. Nacho himself was the artist. He smiled with pride as we admired his work. It was clearly a passion of his, one of many. He told us that he worked making chorizo, sausages, and sold them door-to-door, but that he only needed to work a couple of days a week to get by. The rest of his time was for living, and it was obvious enough that he did that, he was one of Kerouac’s wild ones, with a passion for life, a fire in him, that was impossible not to like.
Nacho made us potato and eggs for
dinner and we sat and ate together, the four of us. Nacho was raising
Mini-Nacho alone, a single father of almost fifty. Yet Nacho himself
reminded me of a child in many ways, and it felt like the two of them
were more like mates. “You’re so ugly,” he teased his boy. “He
looks like, how you say, like a frog, but not a frog.”
“Yes, a toad. You’re a sappo, a toad,” he told his three-year-old, who just giggled back. It wouldn’t be long before he would join in with his father’s banter, and no doubt give as good as he gets.
But there was more to Nacho than his artwork, his passion, and his toddler bullying. He continued to surprise us, not least when he said, “What music do you like? I like opera!” or when he made us sit and pose while he sketched us in the morning, presenting us with the finished artwork and telling us, “So, when you run out of toilet paper someday, you can remember, ah, yes, Nacho, and you can use this.”
It had been a special event meeting
Nacho, and our time together was extended when he rode along with us
out of town in the morning. His bicycle was away somewhere being
fixed, so instead he puttered along next to us on his motorbike.
After showing us around the town he rode with us for half an hour or
so, before bidding us farewell and turning for home.
“You know it’s bad when even the guy on the motorbike is turning back,” I joked, as his disappearance coincided with a sudden upturn in our chosen road’s gradient. But my joke almost immediately lost its humour, for the road soon really did seem too steep for motorbikes, or any bikes for that matter. It was hideous, and to make matters worse it was covered in cobblestones again. Dea and I sweated our way up, straining every sinew to move the bikes forward at a pace only marginally above that required to not fall over. It was hell, and it had only just begun. The climb would rise 900 metres before the summit.
Somehow we eventually crawled our way to the top, through a rare natural forest on an almost empty road, and rolled down towards Tapalpa, our destination for the day. This ‘Peublo Magico’ (one of Mexico’s so-called magic towns) felt like anything but to us. We had hoped to find a quiet town to relax in for the night, but instead we found a busy, fake-looking town, with everything set up for tourists and apparently no accommodation within our price range. We did get approached by a couple of friendly strangers in the town square, but after all the tough riding we were too exhausted to care much. These hills were killing us, and all either of us wanted was a cold shower and a place to lie down.
Eventually we managed to find a hotel that we could negotiate down to something close to our budget, and we moved in for the night. By this stage it was quite late and we planned to keep moving in the morning, so we tried to give our exhausted bodies an early night.
The fireworks put paid to our plans in that regard. These were not fireworks belonging to one spectacular show, but Mexican fireworks – loud bangs and not much else, that went off periodically for most of the night, and then resumed again early the following morning. Dea and I awoke bleary-eyed, still exhausted. The idea of getting on our bikes and cycling on more steep hills was terrible. In many ways we were really enjoying Mexico’s back roads, the people we were meeting, the things we were seeing, but they were just such incredibly hard work. We’d done so much steep climbing, so much hard braking, and our bodies were feeling the effects. But our minds suffered even more, looking at the map and seeing our dismal progression, and only more mountains ahead. Our planned route to Oaxaca and beyond followed the mountain ranges, up, down, up, down, up, down, and our progress was so slow that it was going to take us months to get through them. The thought of getting back on our bikes with our tired bodies was horrific. This wasn’t going to work. Something was going to have to change.