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Guadalajara to Oaxaca

MEXICO | Tuesday, 12 May 2009 | Views [3228] | Comments [3]

Anna at Paso de Cortés

Anna at Paso de Cortés

13/4/09 - 7/5/09 Guadalajara to Oaxaca 1204 km

The days in Guadalajara with Nobu, Hiro and Ken fly past. They are captivated by the city with its climbing wall, cinema and skate boarding and decide to stay longer, while we get back in the saddle, wanting to get moving further east and southward after our journey home and only 600km under the belt since returning to Mexico. So sadly we part ways again, uncertain of when we might meet them again on the trail.

The month that follows is demanding, due to heat, endless hills and busy roads. The Spanish conquestador Cortes described this part of Mexico by crumpling a piece of paper to highlight the mountainous nature of the land and we are also entering the hottest time of the year as the wet season gradually builds up.

Upon leaving the busy roads and pollution of Guadalajara we have the choice again between the ‘libre’ and ‘la cuota’ heading towards Morelia. With the feeling to get some kilometres behind us into mainland Mexico we choose the cuota. To help you understand our dilemma let us describe a little about the roads in Mexico.

The ‘Cuota’, or toll road, is usually a 4 lane highway with wide shoulder and goes in a straight line through everything. Hilltops have been blasted away to keep the flow for fast moving traffic constant. The shoulder is the big advantage, but views and gradient are monotonous and boring. On top of that, the cuota is illegal for cyclists, although the police often advise us to ride there.

There is the Libre, a two lane highway usually without shoulder. The advantage is that the road follows the natural contours of the land. The landscape therefore becomes more interesting and the climbing mentally less of a challenge. Also, this road passes many villages and one can get in touch with local people, stock up on food and water, and find a place to stay for the night. The disadvantage is the narrowness of the road and speeding traffic.

Then there are the many ´B roads´. These are the roads through ´the real Mexico´ travelling past rural villages, children playing in the street and farmers working the fields. On our map we can´t see if these roads are paved or not, they are sometimes extremely steep and they are often inaccurate, sometimes becoming rough dirt tracks. Taking them is a bit of a gamble. Throughout Mexico we end up riding bits on all three types of roads.

The last day to Morelia is hard. Instead of the cuota we choose for a pretty but hilly country ‘B road’. After a few days of looking tired, Ali suddenly feels unwell, struggling to find the energy for even the smallest of hills. He insists on riding on, not hitching a ride in a pick-up. We do make it to Morelia and quickly book a hotel. Ali appears to have the same stomach flu as Nobu had in Guadalajara six days earlier and the night is awful with plenty of visits to toilet and the bucket next to the bed.

The days after we rest. Ali quickly recovers and we walk through the beautiful world heritage ‘centro historico’ of Morelia. Via the enormous cathedral we wander along an old acuaduct to the Sanctuario de Virgen de Guadalupe, the inside of this church is decorated completely in pink and gold and paintings depicting the conversion to catholicism of the indigenous people of the region. In Morelia we eat our stomachs round with a local specialty ´Gaspachos´: a litre cup of freshly diced fruit, mangos, papaya, melon, pineapple, mixed with orange juice and topped with cheese, lime, salt and chili powder. Your lips end up burning but still it tastes sweet. The abundance of freshly prepared tropical fruits in Mexico means healthy eating, and is no doubt the key to a quick recovery for Ali.

From Morelia we ride east in the direction of  Mexico City riding high over two 9000 feet plus passes, but peaceful mountain roads. We want to skirt around Mexico City along its southern borders to Toluca and then Cuernavaca, to then take a bus into the centre from a base outside. The roads surrounding the cities become busier and busier...

Just west of Toluca we are plucked off the cuota by the highway control saying it was too dangerous for us to ride there and from which we were then ´dumped´ on the libre. They were right, because it was only a two lane highway with a small shoulder that most people were using to pull over and allow others to overtake, very different to what the other cuotas had been like. Still, it was the first time we had any problems in Mexico with the cuota. 

The next morning, when we try to leave Toluca, it is so busy and chaotic that I don´t want to ride on. We are sitting at a petrol station watching the traffic race by and manage to get a lift from a friendly Mexican couple 100 km down the road to Cacahuamilpa. We are thankful for their help and enjoy a good Spanish lesson as a bonus while in the car. The woman is wearing a blue mouth mask. We had seen people wearing these masks in Toluca but thought it had to do with the pollution and dust in the air. The lady shows us the newspaper, and for the first time we read about the ´swine flu´. Later that week we are made part of the fear and panic that surround the outbreak of this possible pandemic. Some of the people wear masks, schools and museums etc are shut, and we see rows of people waiting outside hospitals. We receive a lot of emails from concerned family and friends. Thank you!

It is difficult to make a decision on what to do. The information and advice from the World Health Organisation, ministries of foreign affairs and our insurance companies are vague and contradicting. No ´negative travel advice´ but a ´warning to cancel all non essential travel to Mexico´. We decide the best thing for us is to continue travelling, but to be careful with contact with others, and seek medical care if we do get sick.

The fact is that this virus might roam around for months to come, in all parts of the world, and that for example ´fleeing Mexico´ isn´t the solution. The virus doesn´t respect international borders. 

One little downer of the influenza outbreak is that we can´t visit Mexico City, for all the museums and sights we had wanted to visit are now closed for the swine flu. Oh well, it takes that decision out of our hands. 

A special surprise are the caves of Cacahuamilpa. The caves are situated in a National Park and we camp near the entrance of the cave around a swimming pool with some more of the more adventurous Mexicans we have met here. It’s a stunning valley with steep valley walls and two subterranean rivers flowing through the mountains carving out the caves and tunnels. Outside at our camp it´s hot and humid, inside the caves cool and humid. We walk two kilometers into the cave with a guided tour. The ´ceiling´ is between 40 and 80 meters high in places, and the cave is about that wide. Along the sides are awesome and bizarre stalagmite and stalactite formations. They are being lit in turn as we walk past. It is the most impressive natural cathedral you can imagine, we are blown away by the sheer size and amazing formations. The guide is mainly busy pointing out how the formations resemble recognisable figures, especially Jesuses, Marias and devils. We can’t share his view and instead appreciate the amazing forces of nature, water and time that have created these caves and their features.

The first time in the tent for a long time...next to the swimming pool at the Grutas

When we exit the caves two hours later it takes a little to adjust to the light and the humid heat. The sky is dark grey and thunder rolls in. We race against the clock to cover the inner tent with the outer, just in time for a fresh thunderstorm. After the rain the heat returns. At night dozens of bats skirt over us and we sleep to the sound of cicadas ´singing’. In the early morning we see the bats return to the big black hole in the rocks.  

On our map we had seen a road between the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, the second and third highest peaks respectively in Mexico (with Popocatepetl still a very active volcano, occasionally threatening the 20 plus million people that live within her range). After some encouragement reading the website of the Hobobikers, who rode here two years ago, we decide to try this route. A beautiful day, ascending from the smog and dust of the valley of Mexico City, through pine forest and clean air to finally reach the ‘Paso de Cortes’ at 3600 meters. In 1519 Hernan Cortes was here with 600 soldiers, 15 horses, 15 cannons and hundreds of native people on their way to Tenochtitlan, the old Mexico City, which they conquered from the Aztecs. Now it is calm and cool, and we enjoy the view of both volcanoes. This is the highest pass we have ridden over in the whole trip, over 2000 feet higher than Boulder Mountain in Utah, so we have a small celebration in the thinning air. The descent turns out to be more of a  challenge, 18km with a loaded bike down a sandy, rocky road nearly sliding out and with legs down at times we stay upright (still a lot better than riding up the sandy track we think...).

The last six days from Cholula to Oaxaca are blissful. The traffic reduces drastically so we can enjoy the quiet mountain roads, the scenery changes to dry mountain slopes with cactus and small fan palms, some colourful red rock formations and we enjoy good company of Martin and Susy, two English cyclists on their way from Vancouver to Panama.  We are the first cyclists they have met on mainland Mexico, so with the four of us ride strongly through the endless hills enjoying the winding roads and scenic mountain views along the ‘forgotten highway’, mex 190 passing adobe mud farmhouses, terraced farms and goat herders.

Beautiful desert riding up mountains, along ridges, through red coloured rocky landscapes and past hundreds of cactus

...all with the great company of Martin and Susy

The first signs of the wet season has brought these cactus into bright flower

Before we know it we are rolling into the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaca.

For three days we have been in the city of Oaxaca. A beautiful city famed for its colonial architecture, great food, craftwork, and the nearby Monte Alban. Monte Alban is one of the oldest archeological cities of Meso America, and was built by and added to by the Zapotecs and other pre Columbian people between 500 BC and 750 AC before being abondoned, possible due to drought and a changing climate (sound familiar?). They are the first large ruins we have visited and we are impressed by the size of the ‘gran plaza’, the pyramids, ball courts, rock carvings, tombs and astronomical observatory all set on a flattened hilltop 400 metres above the valle centrale below. Still so much is unknown about the people and the purpose of such a place, amazing to imagine what it would have been like in its prime.  

Anna almost gets lost on the many stone steps leading to the various temples at Monte Alban, hot and sweaty work.

The Gran Plaza of Monte Alban in the background...it's yellow and dry this time of year

Mexico is obviously poor compared to the USA, but besides poor road construction, a lot of littering along the roads, and begging old ladies in cities, it hasn't been that obvious until now. Oaxaca is the first city where we see many young children beg, sometimes only 3 years old, walking alone through the streets. That is heartbreaking and frustrating. We hope to donate some more time and help in future months  by doing some volunteer work.

Next week we are riding from the highlands to the coast, and then back up to San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas. The border of Guatemala is in sight!

We hope all is well for you all, and really appreciate your reactions on our site and personal emails.


Anna and Alister

Tags: cactus, cycling, desert, mexico, swine flu, volcanoes



wow what a story! I hope the mexican flu will not affect you!


  Vincent May 21, 2009 4:32 AM


Wat een mooie foto's! Ik ken de popocatepetl van een of ander liedje van Ja zuster, nee zuster. Nooit geweten hoe die er 'in het echt' uitziet. Ben benieuwd of jullie er nog toe gekomen zijn om vrijwilligerswerk te doen. Lijkt me pittig! Hier alles goed. Opleiding en promotie onderzoek lopen, nieuw huis is heerlijk! Tot snel weer, liefs Bar x

  Barbara Maat May 22, 2009 7:54 PM


Hoi Anna,

nou je schiet al aardg op! maar fiets voral stevig door, want voordat je het weet is de Carretera Austral helemaal geasfalteerd:-)


  Eric Schuijt May 27, 2009 10:40 PM

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