MEXICO, 14th-27th January 2019
We loved cycling across Mexico. Once we got off the main roads and took the small roads east across the country it quickly became one of the real highlights of the trip, one of my favourite cycling destinations of all time. Everywhere seemed different, no two towns or villages were ever the same. For example, the very day we left the American-Mexican kids at the football (or should that be soccer) pitch, we climbed up through a town called Tarecuata, a town full of Indian faces, of women in these amazing traditional shawls and skirts, the likes of which we hadn’t seen before, characters cut out of history books and pasted into a market scene in modern Mexico. Dea and I took seats at a little cafe and had the most fantastic fruit salads and watched the locals, so different here from the people we’d left behind in the village that morning. It was only later that I realised during this little break my total distance cycled since Paris was paused on 89,999 kilometres. 1,000 metres up the road, and I was 90% of the way to completing another of my seven targets.
Taking the small roads wasn’t without its risks, and later that afternoon our happiness threatened to turn to frustration when we found ourselves coming to what appeared to be a dead-end on a very quiet road. Faced with the prospect of a long retreat we instead ploughed on forwards through the fields, and got our reward when we eventually returned to the gravel roads and passed through an amazing area of people and animals on our way to Chilchota. There were chickens and turkeys and turkey babies, cows grazing in people’s yards, and dogs, everywhere stray dogs. It really is a dog’s life in Mexico, I swear there are more dogs than people. And Chilchota was a great town too, where an English-speaking taxi driver named Nacho cheerfully gave us directions to a cheap hotel by a lake, and close to a series of steps that climbed up a hill and overlooked the city. Painted in the green, white and red of the Mexican flag, we defied the objections of our tired legs to climb to the top and look down over the town, our hearts filled once again only with happiness.
We had to follow urban roads through Chilchota and for a fair few kilometres beyond it too, as we passed through a series of small towns. Normally we hate such roads and avoid being in towns if we can, yet here in Mexico they were a treat, a real delight, a highlight. The streets were quiet, with hardly any traffic, only people walking or cycling, and what traffic there was going carefully, slowed by frequent speed bumps and by the knowledge that this was a human space, a place for people to go at their own pace and enjoy it, just as we ourselves did. And these thoughts were confirmed by Alberto, an English-speaker who came to us in a little town square we stopped in for a break. He lives in the United States, yet he said he preferred it here so much, everyone so friendly and everything so peaceful, that he didn’t want to have to go back north of the border.
The next day we reunited with Ciaran, the young Irish fellow who’d been a part of our great Baja cycling gang. He’d taken a lot more time off than us, resting in Guadalajara either side of taking a bus trip to Mexico City for New Years. He’d then cycled 120 kilometres in one day on the toll road to meet up with us again. He’d done four days of riding since our Christmas together, and while we had put in some two weeks of pedalling to get to the same spot, I wouldn’t have swapped our experiences for anything. But Ciaran was up for joining us on our meandering back road route, and, keen to show him the joys of taking the roads less travelled, we headed off together down a gravel track beside a canal. Before we’d made it 15 kilometres we had to stop. “Broke a spoke already!” chirped Ciaran.
We stopped in a little village park so that he could replace it. Two kids were kicking a football around, three old women sitting on a wall nearby chatting, as they no doubt always did. After taking everything off his bike, turning it upside down, removing the wheel, attaching a spare chain as a chain whip, and removing the cassette, Ciaran realised that the spare spokes he had were too short. But Dea and I played a super game of football-golf, so the break wasn’t a complete waste of time.
We switched to paved roads to protect Ciaran’s bike, but these were just as quiet, with more people on horses than in vehicles. The area was sufficiently remote for us to feel confident wild camping. It seemed like a good, peaceful spot, at least until four in the morning when some locals came right by our tents with a herd of stampeding cows. But we all survived the night, and the following day we rode the final kilometres to Moroleon, a bigger town that marked the end of the first of our three cross-Mexico sections. It was a notable milestone, and to celebrate we checked into a hotel and went out for, yes, that’s right, pizza.
With a whole day off we explored Moroleon and got to know the culture a little bit. It’s apparently famous for its clothes and textiles, and the non-stop lines of clothes shops going along for kilometres on end were testament to that. But it was another element of the Mexican culture that Ciaran and I were keen to investigate more. It seems, you see, that the Mexican youths enjoy both football and video games, and when we saw a little place where you could go in and play Fifa 2019 for an hour for a dollar, we thought it only right to partake ourselves, just to get to understand the culture, obviously. One hour soon turned into two, just to make sure we’d fully understood, and the only problem really was that Ciaran won. I was gutted to lose to him, it made me sick. Well, something made me sick, anyway. When I stood up and suddenly wasn’t staring at a computer screen any more, I felt dizzy and sick, failed completely to adjust back to the real world, and was barely able to stagger back to the hotel. I was soon violently sick, and a long, sleepless night beside a bucket was in order. I can’t say for sure what it was that made me so unwell, but I really do think the only realistic cause was the way Ciaran beat me in extra time of the last game.
I needed another two days off in Moroleon to recover, then we headed out again, still united as a team of three that had now been christened Team Mates. And we were mates, riding along very happily together, chatting our way through the Mexican countryside, then playing card games at the end of the day. Ciaran was very laid-back and easy to get along with, an ideal sort of cycling team mate. Having lost a bit of time in Moroleon we made a goal of cycling the next section of our route to Teohutican in six days, at an average of 60 kilometres per day, and for the first few days we made steady progress. We only had one very difficult section, a 700 metre climb that started on a paved road but soon turned to a terrible dirt road that we had to push up. Ciaran had broken another spoke, but he was soon planning to take a bus into Mexico City to source a replacement wheel.
After a couple of days of climbing, Mexico showed us another of its many faces when the landscape suddenly opened up into broad flat plains. The whole area looked uncannily like Central Asia, with low white houses surrounded by animals, clothes drying outside. The people even looked Asian here, and it was a convincing illusion to believe we were back in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan somehow as we rode out into the plains past a herd of sheep being shepherded along the bumpy road, one lamb struggling desperately to keep up.
The highlight of this area came when we approached a truck filled with hay bales out in the plains. A man was standing on top of the hay, two boys working below, as a herd of cows approached from the opposite direction. “Where are you going?” shouted the man as we passed. We stopped and told him, and he laughed and shouted down some more. His name was Andres, and he was an enthusiastic man, a madman really, cast against the low sun as he stood on his haycart, his two sons standing shyly next to it. The cows arrived, and one threw his head into the corner of the hay and rubbed his itchy head furiously against it. But this wasn’t the end of the madness, for Andres pointed across the plains and said, “Look, a little cowboy!” And sure enough, what appeared to be a child upon a horse was coming towards us, but as he came closer we saw that he was in fact a man, a very tiny man, a true little cowboy. He greeted us and went on, and left Andres to ask us if we’d seen the killers in Mexico, the bad people that everyone is so afraid of. When we said we hadn’t he shook his head and said, “No, they only exist on the news,” which seemed true enough in our experience of Mexico so far. “What do you do?” he asked suddenly. I told him I was a writer, the closest thing I had to a job, but he must have misheard, for he replied, “Just like my boy, he does drugs. Anything he can get into.” But before I could explain anything, Andres had changed the subject again. “Where will you sleep tonight?” he asked, and I told him Jalalalallasomething. “Jilotepec, that’s… 500 miles,” he said, which was further than we’d anticipated, “Maybe… three or four hours by bike.”
We actually didn’t make it the 500 miles to Jilotepec until the following morning. We found the central square, the leafy park every Mexican town is centred around, and enjoyed omelettes and orange juice together one last time before Team Mates was disbanded. Ciaran hopped on a bus to Mexico City, now not so very far to the south-east of us, and Dea and I were alone once again as we rode on through some busier areas. There was a lot of mining activity, and we several times passed places where mountainsides were missing, big quarrying trucks carrying them away. But we stuck to our plan, and the small roads carried us through without too much bother to a great wild camping site amongst the cactuses.
The following day we rode the remainder of the way to Teotihuacan, making it up more long climbs before descending down upon the famous pyramids, and in so doing completing our mission of making it in six days. The second of our three cross-Mexico sections had now been cycled, and as we looked over at the Pyramid of the Moon from the summit of the Pyramid of the Sun early the next morning we knew that, not only were we going to make it across Mexico, we were going to do it with smiles on our faces. This was a huge country, but it was a great, great one to cycle across, and we were very much looking forward to the rest of it.