After the good people of Casa Ciclista thwarted our first attempt to leave Guadalajara, we made a successful second attempt…a mere nine days after we arrived. However, it was a bumpy departure. Our last night in Guadalajara had been spent out until four in the morning, dancing our hearts out to 80s music at a local house party. You can probably imagine how great Alex and I looked and felt the next morning, after just five hours of sleep. But we were ready to hit the road. Luckily, it was Sunday, which meant that getting out of the city was made somewhat easier by the Via Recreativa. We can say for certain that we had the most cumbersome bikes of anyone riding the Via, so we got plenty of stares (and the occasional thumbs up).
Once we got onto the toll road headed east we were golden, at least in terms of stressful riding. That didn’t change the fact, though, that we still felt the night in our bones. (Note from Alex: Tom kept complaining about a stiff neck, until realizing that his two hours of headbanging to hair metal the night before was probably the culprit.) Many stops and lots of painful miles later we rode into Zapotlan del Rey, a quaint little town where we passed more horses than cars on the streets. After hanging out in the plaza for awhile, we approached a policeman about a safe place to spend the night. That policeman directed us to the local comandante, who made a very serious consideration of our options before leading us around the corner to our home for the night. He was a bit distressed about the fact that the little room built into the side of police headquarters wasn’t exactly clean…or maybe hadn’t been cleaned in a few years…but it had a bathroom and space for us to lay out our sleeping pads, so we were good to go! Happily we accepted his offer, which he seemed to be pretty pleased about. After assuring us over and over that the police were here to serve us and that he wants to make sure we have a positive experience, he left us with a slightly distressing comment about not wanting to come back in the morning to find us murdered (um, we hope so too?) and bid us goodnight.
In smaller Mexican towns, the activity of choice for young men seems to be to drive around in circles, blasting music, every night, from about 8:30PM until midnight. The louder your music, and the shinier your car, the manlier you are. So that happened… but we’re getting used to it at this point. By the time morning rolled around, the residual effects of 80s dancing and the late night manhood exhibition seemed to be draining away. We said a lengthy goodbye to the comandante and took down his phone number (just in case!) before continuing east, on a road full of constant ups and downs. Early afternoon found us in La Barca, on the state border between Jalisco and Michoacan. The skies threatened a torrential downpour and Alex was feeling a cold coming on, so we settled on a cheap hotel for the night. Sure enough, right after we checked in and the hotel owner assured us that it wouldn’t rain, a monsoon-like downpour started up. We were quite content to enjoy the show from our warm, dry room.
Out of La Barca, we continued on eastward. This also meant leaving the relative safety of Jalisco state behind and entering big, bad, scary Michoacan state. Yes, the news media would be appalled. In all honesty, we’ve made a serious effort to talk to a lot of people about traveling through Michoacan, and time and time again we hear that, by and large, it is fine. Avoid traveling at night (which we always do), and don’t travel through the mountainous central part of the state (which we had no plans to). Our two days in Michoacan passed essentially without incident.
We got into the town of La Piedad, on the state border of Michoacan and Guanajuato, later that day. Once we’d settled down on a park bench to give our tired legs a little rest, an old man approached and asked whether he could take a picture of us. Of course, we said! He revealed himself to be a reporter for the local newspaper, and gifted us a current issue of the paper with his picture in it. Before we knew it, he was pulling out a tape recorder and we had a little interview, which due to my poor Spanish skills had mostly Alex talking and me nodding my head, which is hard to hear on tape. I guess foreign travelers are a rare sight in La Piedad. We’ll see if we make it into the paper!
Morning brought a fresh start and Alex was finally as good as new, hooray! We initially planned to leave La Piedad on a less major road towards the north, but after talking to multiple people in town about which route to take, everybody insisted that a wider shoulder and heightened security presence made the cuota a better choice. Fair enough – we followed their advice, rode out of town on the cuota to the east, and almost immediately regretted our decision. The road was both incredibly busy and intolerably bland. We also seemed to be on the pig superhighway: semitruck after semitruck rumbled by carrying hundreds of crates of pigs to their smelly, untimely deaths.
To top it off, we were stopped by another fellow bike rider: a Mexican man riding to Argentina to raise awareness about violence against women. As commendable as his purpose was, his riding was flat out insane. He was proudly riding against traffic, and encouraged us to do the same. (No thanks.) To add a little more danger to his riding style, he made a habit of swerving back and forth through traffic to switch from one shoulder to the other. Now let me clarify, that is two-lane, oncoming traffic racing along at more than 110 km/hour during the busiest time of day. He’ll be lucky if he makes it out of Mexico without a serious incident. Needless to say, we cringed as he rode off into the distance.
Lucky for us, we soon found a great little sideroad that helped us avoid the busy highway and crazy cyclists. Our day ended just outside the town of Cuerámaro at an abandoned aqua park. After much negotiation, an old, stooped “guard” gave us clearance to camp under a covered awning at the entrance. He assured us that he would be keeping watch – a nice thought, but not exactly reassuring considering his best walking days were far behind him.
Fueled by banana nutella tacos, we continued our journey in the morning and arrived in the beautiful town of Guanajuato. Guanajuato sits in a basin ringed by mountains, and whoever designed this labyrinthine city decided that a series of winding tunnels would be the best access strategy. Why go over the mountains when you can go through them? Well, tunnels are not so fun for a cyclist – but at least the terror of being stuck in a dark tunnel with cars coming at you from both directions gives you the adrenaline boost you need to zip right through. These two smart cyclists both made life a little more exciting by entering the tunnel with our sunglasses on. So intelligent.
Sunglasses and all, we survived the last tunnel and were catapulted into the rainbow maze of Guanajuato. Quite simply, Guanajuato is a marvel. Lively architecture, winding infrastructure, streets on top of streets on top of tunnels, and all of it crammed together so tightly that any hopes of navigating this city are soon surrendered to the permanent sense of being utterly lost. In a way, I was weirdly reminded of Venice, also because Guanajuato was overflowing with tourists. Every street was boasted a hostel or hotel so we had no problem finding a place to stay, even though pretty much everything was beyond our budget. But who cares, when you’re in a city as weird and glorious as this?
We spent the next two days wandering around town, marvelling at the unbelievable sights and our ability to get totally turned around. Walk around one corner, and you might find the birth house of Diego Rivera. Walk around the next, and – oh look! – a mummy exhibition. Unfortunately, for all its culture, there is no denying that tourism has brought some not-so-welcome sights to the city (here’s looking at you, KFC). Since the cost of all this exploration was decimating our budget, we made a point to skip the restaurants and subsist almost entirely on little loaves of bread sold outside our hotel for 3 pesos each, or about 25 cents. Nothing better than to sit on the sidewalk, munch on a freshly baked Brötchen and sip your coffee.
During our first nightly excursion we came across an enormous mariachi group dressed up like medieval bards, loudly singing and playing their instruments while prancing down the street. They were closely followed by hundreds of people weilding their cameras and smartphones to get the best shots of the spectacle at hand. Being the adventurous people that we are, we simply joined in on the fun, following along, and in no time a grinning man came up to us weilding a little sombrero and a porcelain frog. Apparently, we had just joined his wealthy uncle’s annual business celebration, and to look the part we needed to clip on the hat and get drinking from that frog! And this, my friends, is how we came to meet mezcal. (Note from Alex: Shortly thereafter, we discovered that we have a long way to go with our mezcal appreciation. This beloved Mexican drink tastes, to me, like drinking straight from the nozzle at the gas station…maybe a gas station that has recently been set on fire. There’s a bit of a smoky aftertaste that tags along with the gasoline fumes. Cerveza, por favor?)
We left Guanajuato with our spirits high, heading east towards the next big tourist town, San Miguel de Allende. The only thing separating us from our destination was 80 kilometers of mountainous roads and a hellish headwind. By late afternoon, after hours and hours of throwing ourselves and our bikes into the wind, we rolled into San Miguel more dead than alive. We had arranged a place to stay through WarmShowers, an urban campground/music performance space run by an American who had been living in Mexico for a good ten years.
After a quick dinner, Alex fell straight into bed and missed the arrival of two more cyclists at the campground. Arpi and Zita are a Hungarian couple on their honeymoon. By honeymoon, we mean a three year, 28,000 kilometer recumbent bike ride around the world…so far. Quite an accomplishment if you ask me. They both turned out to be very friendly and openminded people, and we quickly warmed up to each other. For that night and the next day we shared stories from the road and explored San Miguel together. Unbeknownst to us, San Miguel is a hotspot for American retirees and consequently felt like a bit of a letdown, so Arpi and Zita were definitely the highlight of our stay. We introduced them to chilaquiles and tuna fruit, and they introduced us to the wide world of cycle traveling possibilities and why it is a questionable idea to cycle Bangladesh. The two of them are also heading towards South America, and if you’re interested in their journey you can find them at http://www.cyclingthe360.com. Thanks to them, we have some fresh inspiration and a ton of new ideas for future bike tours.