After a few relaxing days in San Miguel de Allende, we parted ways with Arpi and Zita, with them heading south and us heading north. Due to a late start, some headwind, and a few painful ups and downs, we didn’t arrive at our destination until around sunset. The small town of San Diego de la Union was bustling with people in suits, which at first take was pretty odd. We then heard that the state governor was in town (hence the suits) and settled down on a bench to scope out what appeared to be free food being offered in the plaza. Free food! Unfortunately, before we could capitalize on the opportunity, three little kids swarmed us and started asking questions about our bikes, our trip, and my height. The middle kid, a four year old boy, kept standing at my feet with a huge grin on his face, emitting a high-pitched squeal, and running away as fast as he could screaming with laughter – only to circle back thirty seconds later to begin again. Alex asked the kids why they were so excited and after receiving an answer she erupted in laughter herself. Apparently the kids thought I was Santa Claus! Looks like the scruffy beard is finally paying off.
After taking pictures with the awestruck children, and trying to clarify that our panniers were filled with stinky clothes and not Christmas presents, the oldest girl and the boy took us to a closeby taqueria for yummy and dirt-cheap tacos. The boy just grinned at me while I, Santa Tom, devoured my chorizo tacos. Afterwards we bid our goodbyes and went to the local Oficina de Procteccion Civil to sort out a place to sleep for the night. The proteccion civil provides emergency medical services to towns throughout Mexico, and had been recommended to us as a good place to ask for a safe campsite. Well, this proteccion civil happened to be located adjacent to a big gymnasium, and after a quick inquiry we were allowed to camp inside. After sleeping in a city hall auditorium back in Jala we thought we couldn’t find a more obscure spot to camp…but alas, we were mistaken. For the sake of our comfort, we were told to set up our tent in the boxing ring surrounded by punching bags and weightlifting machinery. This one takes the cake!
This little proteccion civil turned out to be one of our favorite camping spots, not least because the officer in charge gave us free coffee in the morning. After that luxury, and the obligatory banana-nutella tacos for breakfast, we headed further north towards San Luis Potosi. The riding again was fairly drab, with some of the scenery recalling bad memories of desert riding in Baja, but thanks to an extended lunch break we rode through the sunset and made it a 90+ kilometer day. After considering and then abandoning the idea of wild camping amidst the cactuses, we rolled into Villa de Zaragoza, southeast of San Luis Potosi.
Once in Villa de Zaragoza we made a beeline for the local presidencia, and in no time we were following a friendly policeman to an abandoned mezcal distillery to camp. After gratefully accepting that place, A few more policemen showed up and offered us yet another option: the basement below the big gazebo in the main plaza. Given that is was more protected, and had a bathroom, and wasn’t floodlit all night long, we quickly changed our minds and went for the basement. (Although sleeping in an abandoned mezcal distillery would have been pretty cool.) Rather than hop on the bikes again, we hoisted them into the police truck and zipped right over to the plaza. Alex was in the passenger seat comfortably nestled beside the policeman’s semiautomatic, and I was in the truckbed protecting the bikes from falling off. That’s a memory I will cherish for a long time. Once we arrived, the policeman introduced us to our room, which also happened to be where the riot shields are stored (just in case?), and assured us that a police truck would be circling the plaza all night long to make sure that we stayed safe. That sounded good to us, so we quickly unpacked, filled our growling stomachs with street tortas and tacos, and turned in, exhausted but happy to have had such a long day.
The real hammer awaited us the next morning. Leaving Villa de Zaragoza, we merged onto Highway 70 east out of San Luis Potosi, a merciless road of seemingly endless ascents. Climbing 2,000 feet in one clean swoop is already quite a tall order, but it was exacerbated by the fact that we had slept poorly the previous night. It turned out that a cricket had taken up residence in our little gazebo basement, hiding behind the riot shields. The room was circular, which basically meant that we ended up sleeping in a cricket amphitheater. Alex likens it to an echoey car alarm going off all night long. While the residual effects of the cricket concert made that 2,000 foot climb not so great, at least the view was priceless, as was the glorious 25 kilometers of straight downhill after our Herculean feat. A tiny town called Santa Catarina marked the end of our day. Sitting in the shade and watching pigs, donkeys, and cows roam the streets made for some less-noisy entertainment that night.
The next day brought us to Rio Verde, where we spent two days just stuffing ourselves with delicious gorditas and Mexican all-you-can-eat breakfast. Multiple food comas ensued. Other than that, Rio Verde proved to be something of a disappointment. Unlike most other Mexican cities, this one seemed to shut down at 8:00PM, with barely any stands or stores open and next to no people on the streets. While this made for a good night’s sleep, it also meant that we accidentally missed dinner a few times. The big local attraction is Laguna de la Media Luna, or Half Moon Lake. Located a few kilometers outside of town, it is an inland mecca for snorkeling and diving, right up our alley. Unfortunately, during our stay the weather had worsened to such a degree that any outside activity was futile, so we never made it to the lake. Instead, the highlight of our two day stay was probably doing laundry on the roof with a pair of Mexican ladies who tried to teach us how to use a Mexican washing machine. (Note from Alex: It’s a definite step up from bucket laundry, but is harder than it sounds. And involved a lot of Tom scrubbing out clothes on a washboard. If the tech industry ever collapses, Tom would make a good washerman.) Alex had to run the dripping laundry past two vicious attack dogs imprisoned on the roof to hang it on the clothesline. It was an adventure, to say the least.
After Rio Verde, we took it easy and went a short ways south to a place called San Ciro de Acosta. The local policia weren’t as forthcoming about a place to spend the night as we had experienced in other places. Instead they sent us to a soccer field, which they assured us was secure. Well, it was so secure in fact that it was chained up from the outside, and we had no way to get in. What to do, what to do? A quick chat with some people sitting in the street corner revealed that Roberto is the keeper of the keys. Now who the heck is Roberto? Well, he lives down that street over there. Okay… After some more questioning of an old lady and approaching some houses that were definitely not the right ones, we magically found ourselves at Roberto’s house. Success! Luckily, Roberto turned out to be a nice fella. He, as the keymaster, didn’t have a problem with us staying at the soccer field, and after letting us in, stuck around to have a lengthy conversation with us. Unfortunately, due to his heavy accent and a lot of slang, Alex and I were left utterly confused. So, we smiled and nodded, si-ed everything he said, and voilà, he left us the keys to the soccer field and went on his merry way.
Along more mountainous roads we made our way to Jalpan de Serra, a town located in the heart of the Sierra Gorda. Predictably, when riding in a sierra, the riding is hilly. Mountainous, even. The good thing is that this part of the country is all about la naturaleza, so opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and camping abound. The day was rainy and grey, and even though it was nice to not be uncomfortably hot while riding, the opposite with us being soaked to our bones wasn’t that great either. But it was green…oh, so green. Which made for some absolutely stunning riding.
Once we were in town, we made a beeline to the cheapest hotel around, the Hotel Red Inn. After all that riding in the rain, we were both desperately in need of a warm shower. Now, as the name says, this place was all about the color red. The walls, the curtains, the sheets, even the soap was red. On top of that, both Alex and I had the slight suspicion that the place was a popular place for local sex meetups, although we couldn’t gather enough evidence to fully convince us.
The day we arrived in Jalpan, September 15, happened to be one of the most celebrated Mexican holidays. September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, and custom demands that you have to stay up throughout the previous night to honor Mexico’s proud history. For us, that meant that we went to the plaza, which was equipped with a big stage for the occasion, and watched multiple performances while eating ice cream and drinking delicious juices. The highlight of the night was definitely the dancing. The men and women on stage were all dressed in traditional fashion, with the women in layered robes and dresses, and the men in tight-fitting pants and shirts. Even better, the guys were wielding two machetes each, which they incorporated in their dancing. We watched in awe as they whirled the machetes in circles, clacked them together, and threw them into the air, always half expecting the unlucky end of somebody’s arm to come flying into the crowd. Luckily, we were spared a bloodbath. When the clock struck midnight, the mayor of Jalpan gave a rousing speech about the history of this holiday, and every time he finished one of his epic statements, the crowd replied with a resounding “Viva!”.
The next morning we were contacted by Rodrigo, a WarmShowers host in Jalpan. We were happy to escape the dubious Hotel Red Inn, hop in the back of Rodrigo’s truck, and make for his home – a small hotel he was constructing nearby. And what a place it was! Located on a hillside overlooking an scenic lake and the lush green mountains in the background, it was easily one of the most beautiful places we’ve stayed at thus far. (Note from Alex: It was made extra-beautiful by the three huge dogs we shared it with – Romeo, Bruno, and Reiko. True love.) But there was no time to take in the surroundings just yet. As soon as we arrived, Rodrigo suggested that we go on a little kayak tour. Five hours later, we returned not just from a kayak trip, but also from a paddle to the edge of a local dam, a hike in the hills up to a mysterious cave, and a visit to a local community to taste freshly made pulque. You can imagine how floored we were by Rodriogo’s hospitality. After all that, he treated us to a rich barbeque, over which we shared stories from the road and learned about the local area – la Huasteca! Looks like we had finally arrived in paradise.
Over the course of the following week, Rodrigo showed us around Jalpan and shared his passion for the local flora and fauna. One highlight was an educational trip around a cactus garden located high in the mountains above Jalpan. A friend of his called El Lobo (the wolf) taught us all about the life cycle of the local cacti, with the help of his young assistant El Lobito. While we learned quite a bit about cactus plants and the history of the region, I also managed to slip on a rock and fall into a bowl cactus. Removing the bloody spikes out of my hands wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences I’ve had on this trip so far. That was made up for, however, by a trip back to the pulque community later that night for a delicious dinner of gorditas (handmade corn tortillas stuffed with all good things) and atole (a thick, sweet, warm drink flavored with agave). The first moment of tasting atole was sublime. For me, it awoke childhood memories of drinking thick chocolate milk during ice hockey games back in Germany with my Dad and my brother Nick.
Later that week, Rodrigo took a day off from working on the hotel to drive us to the nearby town of Xilitla. We had initially planned to visit by bike, but a look at the elevation map quickly put those plans to rest. Instead we saved our knees and had a whole afternoon to explore Las Pozas, an area made famous by the eccentric British aristocrat, art patron, orchid enthusiast, and all-around weird guy Sir Edward James. Over the decades, Sir Edward James (or Uncle Eddie, as we like to call him) built his personal “Garden of Eden” in the jungles of Xilitla. Uncle Eddie’s obsession with orchids led him to model many of his buildings and sculptures after the flower, making for some truly strange concrete formations scattered throughout Las Pozas. After he died in 1984 the area was designated a protected area, whose fame has taken the town of Xilitla from tiny mountain village to bustling tourist hotspot. The stunning mix of weathered concrete sculptures, surreal architecture, and stairways to nowhere left us awestruck. Peter Pan would have liked it, too.