True to form, our long stint in La Paz didn’t end quite as we expected. We had set up our lease at Casa Republica such that it would end exactly the day the ferry to mainland Mexico would leave. But when we went into the Baja Ferries office we found out that our intended ferry was already sold out, meaning we had to wait another three days before boarding the next available boat. That meant three additional nights in La Paz, but luckily we knew just where to go. We decided to end our stay in La Paz as we started it: at good ol’ Pension California.
Our last day in La Paz was somewhat reminiscent of our initial departure from Seattle. We hadn’t been on the bikes for a long time, our legs were getting squishy, and all of those panniers were looking bigger and heavier than we remembered. With butterflies in our stomachs, we checked out of Pension California and slowly made our way to the ferry terminal in Pichilingue. Given that this was the first time we had been back on the bikes for over a month, it wasn’t so bad. Then again, it was only 10 miles, so you can take that for what it’s worth.
The ferry turned out to be quite an experience. Being from an island, Alex thought that she had the ferry system pretty much figured out. It can’t be that complicated, right? We had bought our tickets, arrived on time, gotten our bikes through customs, no problem. What we didn’t know was that a ferry ticket does not ensure you a ferry seat. Which would be fine, in theory, if we were making the 35 minute crossing from Seattle to Bainbridge. The 18 hour crossing from La Paz to Mazatlan was a whole different story.
Seatless and confused, we were crammed into the general seating area/cafeteria, which we would share with 25 or so truckers and maybe 100 others who had not bought seats. Before the ferry pulled away from the dock, the truckers had already started to accumulate piles of empty Bud Lights. To make the space even more enjoyable, crappy movies blared from the TV all night. Did they really have to torture us with Grown Ups 2? Questionable movie choices aside, there was one upside to the general seating area. The close quarters meant that we got to know a family from Morelia, who were returning from a yearlong stint as visiting researchers at UC Berkeley. Spending a few hours chatting with Erick, Lorena and their kids made the crossing a little more bearable. Erick is a cyclist himself, and had some great insights into route planning for the mainland. Lorena studies local indigenous movements, and helped us to understand some of the basis for the ongoing conflicts in Michoacan. All in all, a much more pleasant way to spend our first couple of hours than watching Grown Ups 2!
Once night fell, Erick and Lorena went to the cabin that they had wisely reserved ahead of time, while we assessed our options as Real Steel played in the background. We decided that we would rather attempt sleep than watch a robot boxing match (seriously?), so we reverted to the only available option: the deck. And believe me, we were not the only ones. Alex scored a bench, while I simply dropped on the ground. You wouldn’t believe how well shoes can substitute for a pillow when you’re sweaty and dead tired!
When we got into Mazatlan around noon the following day we were more than ready to check into a hotel for the night. We had already scouted out our options, and settled on Hotel Belmar, an enormous historic curiosity that had hosted everyone from Erroll Flynn to John Wayne back in its heyday. Belmar was the first waterfront hotel in Mazatlan, built in the 1920s, and parts of it definitely haven’t been updated since then. The bones are grandiose, but it has fallen into serious disrepair with the passing years. Regardless, it was well worth the price, given that most of the interior felt like a museum that we were free to explore to our heart’s content. We must have spent hours wandering the grounds of that rundown place, where creepy corners and deserted relics abound.
Much to our surprise, Mazatlan turned out to be quite a lovely town, with lots of charming side streets, a bustling market full of good and not-so-good smells, and a great nightlife along its boardwalk. We even got to see one of the famous Mazatlan cliff divers perform a terrifying plunge into the strong currents below. Hotel Belmar was in the historic district rather than the tourist-heavy Zona Dorada, so the town was not as Americanized as we had feared. In fact we liked it so much that we decided to extend our stay by a day. Dread of the upcoming bike miles didn’t have anything to do with that decision of course…
But all comfortable things come to an end, so we kissed our cushy bed and running water behind and hopped back on our bikes to tackle mainland Mexico. Riding out of Mazatlan along Highway 15 was a rather pleasant experience, even with slight headwind. The best part about it: the green! After two months in the Baja desert, we were both amazed by the lushness of mainland Mexico. The second best part about it: the shoulders! They exist, which is more than you can say for Baja’s Highway 1. In short, we were happy campers as we rolled out of Mazatlan and into the next phase of our adventure.
Not ten miles into the day, just outside of a little town called El Cuchupetas, we were stopped by an excited man named Ramón who wanted to know all about our trip. When he heard that we were headed towards Guadalajara, he exclaimed that that’s where he lives and that we have to pay him a visit when we’re there. This experience pretty much set the tone for the interactions we would have in the coming days (for the most part…).
Around one in the afternoon we rode into our destination of Rosario. We found our way to a beautiful lake in the middle of town, and spent the rest of the afternoon drinking ice cold juice and napping. Once dinnertime rolled around, we decided to put our tent on a little island in the lake, which was connected to shore by a long wooden rope bridge. It turns out that we should have thought twice about our choice of campsite. As soon as we had pulled up to the island, we were surrounded by a group of local teenagers. They had question after question for these two strange gringos on bikes, covering everything fom our trip to our tastes in music and sports. Since my Spanish is less than passable, Alex had to do most of the talking – which was all well and good for the first hour, but started to drain her a bit as hours two and three rolled around.
Once darkness fell, we were finally able to excuse ourselves from our newfound groupies and retreat into our tent. We were just slipping into a much needed slumber when we were awoken by more teenagers, this time drunk, rattling our tent poles, and hysterical with laughter. Funny for them, not so much for us. Luckily a massive downpour started up a few minutes later, which eliminated any further possibility for late night pranks. Needless to say, we were left pretty on edge and didn’t sleep so well. Pesky kids! (We are officially old.) We might just avoid towns called Rosario from here on out, as we never seem to have great luck there…Alex broke her chain in the last Rosario we were in.
The next morning we were out of there early, making a beeline for the highway and eager to avoid any further interactions with the local teenagers. Many areas in Mexico have two highways that run parallel to one another: the libre and the cuota. The libre is the older, free stretch of road, with more towns along the way but little shoulder to speak of. We’re growing quite fond of the cuota, which is the newer road, tolled for vehicles but free-99 for bikes. It also has a great shoulder, and traffic is sparse (presumably because the tolls are not particularly popular). After our long night, the scenery was green and the shoulder was wide, so we were back in good spirits soon enough. But even the best road couldn’t stop disaster from happening: my first flat tire of the trip, after almost four months away from Seattle!
Around noon we reached Ojo de Agua de Palmillas, a tiny settlement of shacks and dirt paths nestled between the cuota and the libre. Tired from the day’s ride, we asked around town for a place to camp. Most people shook their heads, but one suggested that we ask the local sindicato, which as far as we can tell is both the police and the local government in these small towns. Well, we went to see the sindicato and the sindicato was in the middle of siesta, not to be disturbed, so we gave up for awhile and hung out in the shade of a tree in the city plaza.
After about an hour, a bearded fellow approached us with a smile and questions about our trip. Francisco turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to us in Ojo de Agua. After a bit of confusing conversation, he handed us three enormous mangos and led us to his parents’ house. There we met many, many members of this huge family, whose ancestors founded the town in the early 1900s. As soon as we sat down, people started chatting with us and serving us food. Francisco’s brother provides the town with ceviche, a delicious dish of fish and vegetables best enjoyed on chips or tostadas. He served us a big platter and, as is Mexican custom, everyone happily watched as we devoured the platter all by ourselves, despite our pleas to have them join in. We were then brought dried shrimp, boiled shrimp (shrimp are big here), and more mangos, and encouraged to eat, eat, eat! With full stomachs and after a few hours of conversation we were shown to our room. Our room! Initially we thought we’d just set up our tent wherever there was space, but Francisco and his family went to the length of offering us an air conditioned room and a comfortable bed. It was incredible. Upon offering some money for all their efforts, everybody just shook their heads and smilingly declined. We were both floored by the warmth and hospitality shown to us by perfect strangers, and left wondering how we could reciprocate.
The following morning began with fried fish, a treat that we simply couldn’t say no to. By fried fish, we mean the whole fish, eyeballs and all, caught the previous night while we were sleeping in air conditioned bliss. While Alex nibbled on her portion at first, I went to town on those fish. All the while Francisco’s mother stood by my side and kept complimenting me for being such a good eater. Truer words have never been spoken. After breakfast we licked our fingers, gave hugs, said goodbyes, and exchanged phone numbers. Another brother even escorted us back to the cuota.
Bellies full of fried fish, the riding was considerably slower than the previous day. Our late start meant that we were out in the sun for longer than we should have been. Exhausted, we finally arrived in Acaponeta and hung out at the local Oxxo (Mexico’s equivalent of a 7-11) to regain our energies with green tea and air conditioning. Given that we’d spent next to no money during the previous two days, we decided to splurge on a $20 hotel room to relax and let our brains rest after two long days of conversing in Spanish.
Riding the next day was a breeze, even though the mileage (kilometerage?) went up considerably. We cruised through the morning and arrived in Estación Ruiz around noon. First things first: we dropped down in a shady spot in the central plaza with a big bottle of ice cold Fresca, enjoying the feeling of being done with the day early on. But our peace didn’t last long. Before we knew it, a group of of policeman sauntered towards us. Did we do anything wrong? What are the charges? Do we have the right to a lawyer? Luckily, everything was fine. The cops simply chatted us up and told us that they were on strike, which gave them plenty of time to hang out with us and explained the forty or so other policemen standing around on the corner.
Note from Alex: We ended up having a lengthy conversation about all sorts of things, but one part sticks out for me. Many of the policeman, and various bystanders that joined in on the conversation, told us about how they lived in the US at one point or another. California, Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, doing construction or landscaping or farm work, regularly getting pulled over by the police for driving the speed limit or playing the music too loud in their cars. All of them had ultimately been deported. Upon asking about how this happened and whether it was a scary experience, they mostly just shrugged their shoulders and said “no papeles” (no papers). It seemed to be an experience that they viewed as commonplace, even inevitable. And given how many men we’ve met in the past week who have similar stories, it’s less and less surprising to encounter that perspective. At one point, one of the policemen left and returned with a Coke, complaining about how expensive it was. We joked that Coke is cheap in Mexico, and that the same bottle in the US would cost at least twice as much, if not more. Another man countered that one hour’s wages in Mexico can buy one Coke, while one hour’s wages in the US can buy five. Which, right there, kind of puts it all into stark relief.
Anyways, after a few hours of interesting conversation, siesta time rolled around and we inquired about local camping opportunities or a bomberos (firefighters) station – word on the street is that the bomberos will gladly host tired cyclists. Turns out neither exist in Ruiz, so we scooted around the corner to another hotel with strict instructions not to pay more than $15 for a room. This gave Alex another chance to practice her haggling skills, and helped us avoid the massive thunderstorm that raged throughout the night.
The morning greeted us with the biggest climb not just of Mexico, but of our entire trip. Three thousand feet of continuous ascent over about thirty kilometers meant a very long, hot, sweaty day. Soon the unforgiving slopes had our muscles screaming, butts aching, and spirits sagging. By the time the thousandth semi-truck rumbled by, we were wondering just how sane this whole biking through Mexico thing was. But multiple breaks, fruit bars, and cookies helped us through the pain, and by late afternoon we finally reached the city of Tepic. We rewarded ourselves for completing the first stretch of mainland Mexico with a rest day. And an egg breakfast for Alex, of course. Next stop: Guadalajara!