Monthly Archive for October, 2011

Acatlán to Oaxaca in only 4 days!

Aran’s hand is almost all better, healed up very nicely. All the cycling must be good for it.

But wait! First, we should tell you what we did in Acatlan. Not much. Slept, read, hung out with the clan of the Hugos, had some stomach troubles (Pepto and atole fixed that up), wandered downtown, and visited the studio of a remarkable craftsman who’s family makes ceramics using pre-columbian techniques. They showed us the two types of dirt (sands and clay) that they pulverize by hand, then mix together with water to create a very supple sculpting clay. The pieces are formed by hand with simple tools, as needed, on a rotatable stand (no potter’s wheel), and then allowed to dry in the sun. When dry, they are smoothed with a wet rag, and then painted using natural colorants, again from pulverized dirt of different colors. As soon as the paint is dry, the make everything very shiny by rubbing with a piece of obsidian, and then bake the pieces in a wood fired kiln. Beautiful, intricate stuff, and so smooth. All we could take was pictures, of course, so here are some. (If you’re curious, they will ship, but they don’t have a website. Let us know if you want more info).

Finally, on Saturday we told the Hugos that we must be getting on to Oaxaca, as we were anxious to begin our language schooling. After a hearty breakfast and a lot of pictures, they handed us a GIANT bag of peanut bars for the road, piled into their car, and we followed them on our bikes to the edge of town. So, we returned to our friend the free road, Mexico 190.

Back on Mex190, we had 66 km to go to Huajuapan, and of course, we were still in the Sierra Madres, so the 11:20 start didn’t leave us a whole lot of time to make it there. We biked all day with a lot of breaks, stopping to eat Hugo’s peanut bars a few times along the way, and near the end of the day we crossed from Puebla state into Oaxaca state. Bad news. Oaxaca clearly doesn’t maintain their roads as well as Puebla, so the road surface is very rough, the potholes are more prevalent, and it’s generally slower going. Around 17:30, we stopped to buy water, and Andrew asked if we could pitch a tent outside the tiendita. The proprietress, though a bit surprised, said it wasn’t a problem, so we unloaded our bikes and set camp in the yard outside the shop, which was also the family’s house. The daughter brought us some lawn chairs and the family turned a light on for us while we cooked our refried beans with hot dogs and cheese on toast that we had bought in addition to the water. We fought with the neighbor’s dog over our dinner. Two boys belonging to the family thought we were about the strangest things ever, and made a good game of spying on us before getting brave enough to offer us some fresh-but-not-quite-ripe guavas. In return, of course we gave them some peanut bars. Their grins were priceless. At around 4:30 the next morning, the roosters next door started going at it (the sun does not rise until 7:22, give us a break guys). By the way, this was the first time Andrew has camped without any rain falling in the last 7 years (of 10ish experiences).

Of course, on Sunday morning, we went down all of the meters we had so painfully climbed on Saturday, and arrived in Huajuapan de León before noon. Andrew went into the market to buy some more food, (amazing how often we need to do that) and got some very strange looks when he asked for only 2 bananas and 1 avocado. Those quantities simply aren’t normal in Mexican markets. It’s by the kilo, you American fools! Getting a too-late start once again, we made for the hills, which we found plenty of. More twisting, curving, up and down on 190, now with worse surface conditions. We planned to make it to Tamazulapan, elevation 2000ish meters, and near the end of the day, we saw the information signs for it in the middle of a long downhill, followed by the Tamazulapan hydroelectric plant. However, no sign of the town at the bottom of the hill, and as we started to climb again, the heartfelt grumbling and whining began. A local told us that it was just 6 more km! Woohoo, but of course, all of it was heartbreakingly uphill. We arrived and checked into the very first hotel we saw, and were far too tired to be duly impressed by the banana palm in the garden in the courtyard. We did more than appreciate the delicious, cheap, and convenient restaurant on the ground floor. Hot water shower, washed some clothes, charged all the batteries, had a good night sleep.

Monday we took it easy, which included – yep, you guessed it – yet another late start. And lots of breaks. We began the morning wandering around the town to buy more provisions and ate tamales in the square while admiring the unusually bold and friendly street dogs. Aran considered tossing them some tamale, but Andrew thought better of the idea. About 30 minutes into our day’s ride, we took a break to try traditional cookies. The extremely friendly vendor found us highly amusing and offered us free samples of everything he had and made a present of a few oranges.Another hour down the road, we stopped at a tiny church and found a Horrible Spiny Lizard missing his tail. We took several more gratuitous breaks and managed to cover just 40km to the town of Yanhuitlán. The final downhill was an interesting one, because the road was under serious construction and the crew was holding cars on both sides for half an hour at a time to get work done. We asked if we could go through and the flagger radioed for permission, and told us we could go slowly. Definitely not the USA sort of a work site. At one point, a boulder the size of a couch came bounding down the side of the hill, scaring us and the nearest worker significantly. We pedaled significantly faster, and nothing bad happened. Aran and I then wandered around the town looking for a place to spend the night, eventually deciding on the proffered ENORMOUS front yard of the ENORMOUS church. A few kids dropped by to see what we were up to, and spoke way to fast for us to understand all their questions, but other than that it was a pretty peaceful night.

In the morning, however, we found that we were next to a construction site, as the enormous church is being refurbished. The stones are being hand carved with chisel and hammer in the back of the church, and then ground to the perfect shapes with electric grinders. However, this meant that the night time restrooms were closed, and we began to be in great need. Luckily, the sweet owner of the well stocked tienda in town let us use hers. No toilet seat is pretty standard, as is not being able to flush the toilet paper, but the problem started when Andrew tried to flush and the water just gurgled and rose. Horror! He definitely considered climbing out the window. Mercifully, after some 5 minutes of plunging, it all went away, and everything was OK. Whew.

We got on the bikes, expecting to make it about 60km, and need to be creative about finding a camping spot. 15 more kilometers of Mex190 and we came to the Auto Pista, Mexico-Oaxaca Cuota. That last bit means that it’s a toll road, and that means bikes aren’t allowed, but it also means that the road is well paved, and there are huge shoulders that are great for biking. We were a little nervous when we came upon a congregation of Federales a few kilometers in, but they just waved as we passed, and we continued downhill (fast!) for many kilometers. We stopped for lunch under an overpass where we met a bus auditor waiting for the next bus to pick him up so he could check the passenger list, tickets, and money. He works 16 hours a day for 8 days in a row, then has 4 days off. Either we misheard, or that sounds horrible. He comforted us with the news that it was downhill the rest of the 50km to Oaxaca. Nope. It was up and down in about equal parts for the next 40km or so with one big downhill in the middle, and the last 20km were almost flat. We ended our longest day, 94km (longest day by far) in 9 hours at the Mezkalito Hostel in Oaxaca, and just about dropped over immediately.

For the last 4 days we’ve been kicking around Oaxaca and spending considerable energy trying to decide what language school will be the best for us. We believe we’ve found it! And in fact, we moved in with our wonderful new Mexican family yesterday. More on that soon. Monday, we begin classes at Amigos del Sol!

(Thanks again for your continued comments, we love them. We’ve done 564km so far, and we’re going to take a break to learn Spanish now. We’ll post occasionally while we’re here to let you see what Oaxaca is like and the side trips we take.)

Mexico City to Acatlán

When we looked for routes out of Mexico City, and Andrew saw that we could take a pass between two volcanoes, it became the obvious option. That was before our legs knew what bike touring would really feel like. So, off we went with Oscar to the town of Amecameca, where we spent the first night. Our first day of riding included a small climb, during which Oscar expertly hitched a ride with a giant truck, first making eye contact with the friendly driver who slowed down, then grabbing onto a rope and hanging on all the way to the top. We huffed and puffed our way up.

The following morning, we said goodbye to Oscar and turned East to ride up the Paso de Cortes. We spent 6 and a half hours riding 21 kilometers, at which point, still slightly below the pass, we stopped in the rain, because our legs just couldn’t go anymore. Our first night of wild camping was wet and cold, but still had a great view when the clouds cleared a bit at sunset. We cooked dinner under our tarp, fiddled around with gear, and then crawled into our tent.

The descent down the other side of the pass the next day was equally torturous, but for different parts of our bodies. We found ourselves on a road that was more like a mountain bike trail with deep sand, roots, rocks, ditches and very steep, slidey parts. Our hands (especially little a’s) cramped and ached from the exertion and the cold. Nevertheless, we managed to ride 54 km to Cholula, the city of 365 churches. By the time we got clean and left the hotel, it was dark and things were closed, but we did find an open polleria, bought a whole roasted chicken, and brought it back to the hotel to make dinner on the floor of our hotel room.

We did not leave Cholula in a hurry, but wandered around the next morning, visiting the market and looking at the churches. We climbed to the top of one that was built on top of an ancient Aztec pyramid, which seemed an odd place for a church, but then, where didn’t they put a church in Cholula? And what better way to displace a religion than to build right over it? We descended all afternoon, and by the time we arrived in Izúcar de Matamoros, it had become very easy to believe that it was downhill the rest of the way to Peru. (Not so.)

Day 5, legs still tired, we got another late start. A few kilometers outside of Izúcar, we realized we hadn’t pumped our tires in a while, so we stopped to do some bike maintenance. As Aran was getting ready to pump her rear tire, her bike began to topple over, and in an attempt to save it, she grabbed a very sharp fender stay, which tore a chunk out of her hand. It bled quite a lot, but thanks to a very well equipped medical kit, she stopped the bleeding, cleaned it, pinched it closed with some butterfly strips, and we were on our way again. At around quitting time, we turned off into the tiny town of subsistence farmers called Los Amates. It was the first experience we’ve had where people not only thought we were strange, but couldn’t possibly conceive of anyone doing a trip like this. When we asked if there was a place to set up our tent, we were offered the basketball court next to the school. We bought some water and politely declined, opting instead to turn back up the road a ways and find a wild camping spot next to a little river among some thorny bushes. Yes, it rained again, which made dinner a bit unpleasant, but once again, our tent kept us dry as a bone.

Wednesday, we woke up early, wishing to be out of the way in case we were on someone’s land. For 66 km, we wound our way through the Sierra Madres, which at this time of year are very green since the rainy season just ended. There were some beautiful views of cacti sticking up among the trees on the mountain sides. It was a draining ride because it was so hot, and because we kept spending 30 minutes climbing and 4 minutes descending, over and over again. It looked something like this:

We finished the day, exhausted again, in Acatlán de Osorio. While trying to find a hotel, a family in a pick-up truck approached us very purposefully, and the father came over to shake our hand, smiling and speaking English. Before we knew it, we were in the back of his truck with our bikes, driving off with Hugo, his wife Doris, his mother Maria, and his 1-year-old son Hugito to their home, where they offered us a spare bedroom, a shower, and a hot meal, which Maria cooked. Thanks to their generosity, we are enjoying two days off, resting, drying out our gear, and planning the next 260ish km (depending on whom you ask) to Oaxaca. Hugo owns a company that primarily manufactures and packages peanuts in many forms – bars, paste, chili-covered, etc. He is a man of ideas, and therefore at his factory, he also has a million spin-off businesses: With the extra flour and peanut skins from his peanut products, he makes a mix of organic animal feed to sell to farmers. He also uses that feed to fatten goats, which he feeds to the dobermans he breeds and sells. He breeds chickens for cock-fights, too. He wishes that instead of handing out money, the government would create more jobs for families to support themselves. Hugo seems like a great boss, and is invested in his community and in providing as many good work opportunities for as many people as possible. We’re so lucky to be here.

The plan was to bike out today…

But we’re going to stay one more night. Yesterday, Aran had some pretty amazing stomach troubles (no, it wasn’t the water. We blame a particular torta stand at Garibaldi subway stop.) Then we stayed up late with Oscar brainstorming some ideas for a Mexico City tour guide business he is considering! Then, we slept a little too late this morning to catch Becky before work to say goodbye, and Aran’s stomach is better but not 100%. So we figure, one more day here is a great idea.

Our second week here included a trip to the candy market, where we discovered that they sell large chunks of candied starchy vegetables, like pumpkin and yam. We went to a few other markets and hunted for some spacers Aran needed for her bike racks. Leo invited us to a party at his house, where we met a bunch of his engineering student friends. Andrew observed that engineering school students in Mexico party a lot like engineering school students in the US – lots of dudes sit around cracking dorky jokes. Things really got going, though, when we spotted an ENORMOUS fire from the roof, and heard on the news that a Walmart was burning down. We even tried our Spanish and the engineers practiced their English, and between the two we met some great folks.

Over the weekend, we made a journey north of the city to see Oscar’s camp in the mountains. The site is absolutely beautiful. The mountains and their forests are quiet and pristine, and they make it very easy to forget that Mexico City is only 90 minutes away by car. Unfortunately, it rained all day, and showed no sign of letting up. While Andrew and I are prepared for the rain, Oscar and Becky don’t have much rain gear, and Becky hasn’t camped much. We decided to avoid a cold, rainy night in the woods, and instead drove down the mountain 30km to Pachuca, where there was the Hildago State Fair. We paid 30 pesos each for entry (~$2.25) and all the attractions inside were free. Including the rides. Again, Mexicans know how to have a good time.

Sunday, before heading back to Mexico City, we visited the Toltecan ruins at Tula. Apparently, the Tolteca civilization’s governing power was military instead of religious, unlike a lot of other civilizations. One of those others, the Mexicas, took over the region after a few hundred years. The ruins were cool, though a lot smaller and a bit more tumbledown than Teotihuacan.

Since the weekend, we’ve been gathering momentum to climb aboard the bikes. Oscar has requested that he ride along with us on his new bike which was a thank you present from us. He’ll come as far as Puebla or a bit farther. It will be great to have his company and advice for a few more days. On Tuesday, we made one more trip to the market for road snacks (bars made of nuts, seeds, and honey; peanut butter, tortillas). Yesterday, we packed and Andrew re-assembled his neat-o solar charger. Today, we’re laying low, saying goodbye to the street vendors who come through and serenade the residents here a few times each day.

Tomorrow, we hit the road!