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Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas

MEXICO | Saturday, 30 May 2009 | Views [4849] | Comments [3]

Awesome canyon ride before El Camaron

Awesome canyon ride before El Camaron

13/5/09 - 22/5/09  Oaxaca to San Cristobal   468 km

Oaxaca is a great city to enjoy some downtime, relaxing with our cycling friends Martin and Susy, checking out Monte Alban, wandering the markets and artesanias, the leafy ‘zocalo’ and working our way through some of the famous Oaxaquenan cuisine.

We eat ‘comida corridas’ (a set menu lunch/dinner with soup, mains, agua and dessert for 35 - 60 pesos) daily, and also at the small ‘comedors’ in the local ‘mercado’ where the mexican ‘abuelas’ (grandmas) try to fill us up with local goodness. The days after we stop riding the appetite doesn’t seem to diminish, but instead seems to increase. All four of us have healthy ‘cyclist appetites’ and we usually manage to clean up all that it presented before us! Oaxaca is famous for its cuisine of ‘moles’ (dark spicy sauce sometimes with chile and chocolate), ‘tlayudas’ (Oaxacan pizza) and let’s not forget the local drop of ‘Mezcal’, which Martin helps us discover. 

Firstly I have to correct some friends who have called Mezcal ‘cactus juice’. It is actually made from the fermented ‘pina’ (trunk) of an agave plant in much the same way as Tequila is, but from a different variety of agave called Maguey agave. The process seems similar but perhaps a little more rustic and there is less ‘control’ over the production of Mezcal. Also not all bottles have ‘the worm’, usually only the ‘gusano’. As with Tequila there are many varieties, from the raw home-brew ‘moonshine’ to the classier and smoother ‘Anejo’ or ‘Reposado’. Over the next few days of riding out of Oaxaca we pass many ‘fabric de mezcal’ places all along the roadsides and in villages ranging from large commercial operations with fancy cellar doors to mostly backyard jobs with the fire pit, rolling stone and distiller all under the one shelter. 

Homebrew Mezcal in the making...roasting Maguey agave pinas on the fire

Riding out from Oaxaca it’s warm and dry and relatively easy riding with some rolling terrain. We see the ruins of Yagul set up on a rocky outcrop and i think it is a good idea to take the short detour up the hill and combine it with a lunch stop too. It is a steep, short pinch up to Yagul ruins, not surprising as it was used as a fortress with commanding views of the wide valley below. While not as large and impressive as Monte Alban, the setting on a cactus studded hill, the view from the fortress and the ball court make it a worthy detour.

“Anyone for handball?” Apparently the ball court or ‘Juego Pelota’ at Yagul is the second largest behind the one at ‘Chichen Itza’ in the Yucatan. The game they played is thought to be something similar to volleyball or raquetball with a hard rubber ball, although as you would expect for a game played in various regions of mesoamerica and over a long period of time, there seem to be many variations. Occasionally they even ended in human sacrifice which seems like a harsh way to end a game if you ask me. At Yagul it is impressive in the fact that you can walk through the ball-court, seeing the sloped walls up close and getting a feeling for what it might have been like to play in such an arena (not quite the MCG though!)....After seeing Yagul, I’m not sure if Anna shares my keen interest in these ancient playing fields! 

Later on in the same afternoon we decide to push on to Hierve el Agua, past Mitla. There are two options to get there: the longer one on a gradual climbing road, and the shorter but maybe steeper option. We see a ‘carretera blanca’ winding its way up a number of steep switchbacks up the face of the mountain. ‘Do you think that is our road?....mmm i think so...are you still keen?.....Yeah lets give it a go until the first switchback’.

At the first switchback after some grinding climbing on the dirt road, a huge thunderclap bursts overhead from the threatening looking clouds. Rain and a big storm are on their way, as ‘hands of god’ reach down through the darkened sky. A wall of rain is descending off the mountain so we decide to swallow our pride and descend the hard won metres back down to Mitla. 

Hierve el Agua seems like it is past its prime (like many Mexican tourist attractions), with rows of empty ‘comedor’ food stalls, run down facilities and only a handful of people and a stray dog or two to keep us company. It is a spectacular place though, with hazy mountain views, limestone waterfall outcrops and a series of blue green pools that seem to drop of the face of the mountainside. The pools are formed from mineral springs dribbling out of the top of a mountain, forming limestone terraces and eventually pools, that seem like a scene from Yellowstone NP, only the water is cool. 

The next day we leave Mitla under grey and overcast skies. It’s kind of strange, aside from the afternoon thunderstorms we have been caught up with over the past few days, we haven’t ridden in these conditions since Baja, “is it going to rain in the morning?”. The aroma (or stench, depending on if you like it) of fermenting agave pinas is thick in the air as we pass through ‘home-brew’ Mezcal territory. 

After a short morning climb into the clouds we are treated to a downhill of epic proportions, descending down the side of a steep valley, winding roads cut into hillsides, past agave plantations, it is blissful brake-free descending in the cool and misty mountain air. But as always on the trip, how quickly things can change. The next minute the road deviates away from a seemingly perfectly good river course, climbing 10km or so along a narrow winding mountain road in the baking midday sun. All of a sudden we are sweating suncream into our eyes surrounded by tall cactus and dry scrub, we are back into the desert.

The real bonus comes late in the day as our tired legs push on to our destination of El Camaron, we descend through the narrowing river valley, a huge gorge stretches out beneath us with lush green vegetation hanging to its walls while the road clings to the cliff face. It is one of the more spectacular days riding in all of Mexico, from one extreme to another, to another.

Down to the coastal lowlands, the heat and the winds. That would be right, for the first time in mainland Mexico we are riding on the flat, we have horrendous winds to contend with. Sometimes from the front, but mostly from the side, blasting us around the shoulder of the road. By 12:30pm we have had enough and call it a day in an unpleasant part of Juchitan, busy, dirty, windy and some dodgy characters. 

The next morning we are on the bikes early to beat the wind (and to see our record for the earliest beers consumed in Mexico, 6:45am the night porter at the hotel finishes off his 1.2L bottle of ‘Corona’, and then 7:00am a man riding his bike to work in the fields finishes off a can of ‘Modelo Especial’)....we shouldn’t have bothered leaving so early, it is up already! We ride 15km straight into the famous northerly that blows down over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec past vast areas of newly constructed wind farms. “Yep, they sure found a good place for those windmills” we think to ourselves. The next town is an even more ominous sign ‘La Venta’, which means ‘the vent’, named I’m sure because of the vent of air that it blasting us from the side right now! Things improve from there and on the relatively low undulating lands with a good shoulder to ride we manage 100 plus kilometres for the first time in months. We are deep in mango country and we feast again on fresh mangoes.

Then it’s back into the mountains to cross the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. The 28km climbing into the state of Chiapas (our final state in Mexico) is good, the winds are not. Gale force on exposed corners and in the road cuttings, we are forced to swallow our pride again and walk and push our bikes for small sections to not end up at the bottom of the valley. (We have only had to walk our bikes on several occasions on the trip - once for a hill in Utah, and then for wind in Utah and now here!).

We enjoy a well deserved second breakfast of scrambled eggs ‘a la mexicana’ style to celebrate the end of the climb. We thought this would be the toughest part of the day but it would soon become apparent that there would be no easy kilometres today. Soon after we are back on the bikes Anna is unwell and has no energy even for the slightest hill. Something has been brewing with her health for the past few weeks and now it is setting in. She decides she wants to ride on, so we do, into an incredibly strong headwind and through a seemingly endless undulating valley with increasing local traffic. We make the 76km to Cintalapa, but no further than a quiet swimming pool, come mango orchard, come campground on the outskirts of town. Anna is completely spent of energy. We set up the tent for the first time in weeks among huge mango trees, and next to an inviting swimming pool. 

The next day we barely move except to eat. It seems like Anna will need more rest or to see a doctor, so we start to look at our options from here, only 160km from our next destination of San Cristobal de las Casas.

In the morning at the Centro de Salud the cause of Anna’s condition becomes apparent. The test is positive for Salmonella (although this test result is dubious as no test exists that could tell if it was Salmonella so quickly, except miraculously so in Mexico!) which has caused an infection in her kidneys. The pieces of the story start to add up...eating dodgy food in Guadalajara, myself being sick in Morelia probably with Salmonella, both of us having off days on the bike since then and Anna’s back pains of the past week. She is prescribed  antibiotics and a week or two of rest. At this moment the decision of what to do is taken out of our hands. 

Within minutes we are packed and loaded onto a bus bound for Tuxtla Gutierrez. From there it was negotiating to get our bikes and gear strapped onto the top of a mini-bus bound for San Cristobal de las Casas...which we manage to do. The kilometres fly by from the window of the bus, the awesome views of Canyon de Sumidero, the valley 1000m below and the change in the landscape into boulder strewn hills and pine forests...but it all happens so quickly for us, we can barely take it in. Perhaps conditioned to the pace of travel on the bike. We miss out on the climb from 800m to 2100m, I look out of the window thinking ‘it would have been nice to ride this section...’, Anna doesn’t miss it a bit.

So we arrive in the beautiful colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas, narrow cobblestone streets, coloured street fronts, red tiled roofs, bright Cathedral and cloud covered forested mountains all around. You could say there are worse places in the world to have to rest up for a week or so. The change in the people is quite dramatic from other parts of Mexico, this is the home of the Maya. We hear different languages being spoken on the street and the women and young girls wear their traditional dress while selling bracelets, woven items and handmade dolls.

Anna is on the mend, and will more than likely take a bus to Xela in Guatemala where we are going to study spanish for three weeks, and therefore have a good five weeks recovery. I am considering the prospect of heading out solo on the bike for a week to Xela. Not an easy decision to make when we have ridden every kilometre of the trip together until now.

People often ask us “what has been the hardest part of the trip, the traffic, the mountains, the winds or the people?”. To be honest,  the hardest part is maintaining our health. It’s something we take for granted a lot of the time on the bike when things are feeling good, but it is the single biggest thing that can influence our trip. 

Muchos saludos y que les vaya bien

Alister and Anna

Tags: cycling, food, mexico, mountains, oaxaca, san cristobal, sickness



Dear Alister and Anna,

What a great description of your wonderful adventure! You write as well as you travel. The pictures are awesome as well. We do hope that sweet Anna gets over the crud soon, and can enjoy Guatemala and Spanish school.

Much love,

  Merle, Linda, and Ginger May 31, 2009 3:43 AM


Hi Alister and Anna...we met up on Vancouver Island while we were heading north to Alaska then back down to San Fran, nine months of riding and three continents..... we are back home now missing the easy life of riding and traveling...reading your journal makes us jealous but lets us live vicariously through your travels. I hope your health improves and you make sure you enjoy every moment even the all day headwinds....regards Rob and Andrea

  Rob and Andrea Jun 17, 2009 11:03 AM


Dear Anna and Alister, this is the first time I read a small part of your adventure,and if I had the time I would read the lot in one hit. To me it is mind boggeling where you get the energy from to undertake this expedition. I don't need to tell you to be carefull in every aspect and look after each other.
I was glad to hear Anna's voice when I rang your mother and I hope and pray that you will succeed to complete this journey safely. God bless you, love Sophie & Rob.

  Robert Rutten Jul 29, 2009 2:18 PM

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