After a less than inspiring stint in Oaxaca, the way out of town was somewhat of a relief. It has rarely felt better to be back on our Long Haul Truckers with the road rolling away beneath our wheels and a favorable tailwind at our backs. Our departure from Oaxaca signaled a marked change of pace: the colonial heartland of Mexico lay largely behind us, and the rural landscapes and steamy jungles of the coast awaited. The rolling hills and country views were so refreshing, in fact, that we kept on pedaling on until nightfall.
When the time came to look for a campsite, we found ourselves close to an enormous construction area where a new highway was in its early stages. This seemed rather inviting but it was still crawling with construction workers, so we hemmed and hawed for awhile before finally deciding to go ask someone if it was okay to set up camp. For some reason we always expect the worst from these requests, despite the fact that we are rarely met with a no. This time around, the man we asked acted like it was the most normal thing in the world for two dusty güeros on bikes to ask about camping at the construction site. Without further ado, he led us to a secluded spot and reminded us that the next day was Sunday, so there was no need to worry about workers coming in the morning. After setting up our tent, a night watchman named Fernando came over to introduce himself and reiterated that our night would be “muy tranquilo.”
Despite some gnarly evening winds, our night was in fact muy tranquilo. We woke up well rested and were invited to join Fernando for a cup of coffee and some breakfast cookies. Mexican breakfast, oh yeah! Fernando was brewing coffee in a tin can over an open fire behind a small hut, where he has solo watch duty four nights per week. He was a really nice guy, and probably glad for a little company given his lonely line of work. We chatted for awhile over coffee and cookies, and then wandered over to a food stand at the side of the road to top off our breakfast with a few tortas.
Our conversation was soon joined by Fernando’s friend Roberto, a truck driver who had pulled off the road for a quick bite. Roberto wanted to talk (and talk, and talk) about many things, and got a little testy when anyone else tried to get a word in – a trait we’re finding to be quite common amongst a certain subset of older Mexican men. On the upside, he did teach us a few words of Nahuatl and we bonded over a mutual love for Memo Ochoa, Mexico’s heroic goalkeeper. Before long, we had had enough of Roberto’s monologues and it was time to hit the road. We bid a fond farewell to our new friend Fernando, and wished him the best of luck in the coming months – he plans to attempt his second border crossing in December. He described his first crossing (made a few years ago) as the worst six days of his life, but he is unable to find steady work here in Mexico and needs the money.
We left the construction site behind us and were met with half a day’s worth of laid back cycling. However, we knew that we were in for a challenge that afternoon. By midday we reached the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental, the western of Mexico’s two vast mountain ranges. We already summited this beast once back in August, and the prospect of facing it again was daunting. More than 4,000 feet of climbing separated us from the Pacific Ocean. Oof.
It being late in the day, there was no way for us to tackle the climb in one go. In some stretches the going was absurdly steep, so much so that it was difficult to even push our bikes up the tight curves. We’d be lying if we didn’t admit to wistfully eyeing the passenger trucks going by every once in awhile. With sunset creeping down over the mountaintops, we stopped at a little arts and crafts stand to buy a refresco and ask whether there was anywhere nearby to set up camp for the night. We hadn’t seen another building in at least twenty kilometers and the steep slopes made camping opportunities scarce. Pedro, the owner, looked around, smiled, and pointed to a ramshackle hut and dirt clearing a ways down the slope. His brother lived down there, and we were more than welcome to set up camp for the night. Happily, we took him up on his offer and hauled our bikes down the path. His brother, Andres, was busy roasting corn in his smoky hut, and seemed pretty unfazed by the unexpected company.
Pedro and Andres helped us unpack our tent and offered us coffee and tostadas as a welcome gift. A welcome gift, for the two sweaty strangers that had shown up out of the blue asking for favors! Over our afternoon snack, we learned a little bit about the lives the two brothers lead. As is common in rural Mexico, they had lived perched precariously atop this narrow ridge for their whole lives, as had their parents and grandparents before them. They could recall when the highway that we had spent the better part of the day struggling up was just a dirt track winding through the mountains. In addition to selling food and drinks to hungry travelers at their roadside stand, they make a living by farming all manner of crops on the near vertical hillsides falling away from their home, and selling the produce in town twice a week. “Town” is a tiny settlement an hour’s walk away down a footpath. The return trip – uphill – takes two hours. We can only assume that they carry their produce the entire way, as there was no horse to be seen.
After a restful nights sleep at one of our most scenic campsites, we awoke to further generosity the following morning. Pedro appeared at our tent with the sunrise and offered to let us camp at their rancho for two or three more days – as long as we liked. He explained that they didn’t get many visitors, and would enjoy the chance to show us around their small part of the world. His reasoning echoed words we’ve heard time and time again in rural Mexico: that this land is God’s land and therefore everyone is welcome to it, and that it is our duty to lend a helping hand to others because all of the people of the world are equal. While our atheist selves can’t help but smile and nod awkwardly through the religious parts of this sentiment, we are hugely grateful for the hospitality and kindness at its core. Throughout our many months in Mexico, dozens of complete strangers have offered us a ride, a meal, or a place to sleep. Religious undertones aside, this generosity is pretty astounding and a significant departure from the “stranger danger” mentality so prevalent in the United States.
Unfortunately, after much deliberation we had to turn down Pedro’s offer – largely because we were both itching to get over the mountains and put some kilometers under our wheels. However, we did agree to take the morning slowly to enjoy a long conversation and a tour of the ranch.
With the sun beating down upon us and noon approaching, it was time to finish the climb. After a few dozen gracias-es and a promise to stay longer the next time we passed this way (which will definitely not be under pedal power), we bid goodbye to Pedro and Andres and turned around to face the mountains. Now about these mountains. We’ve crossed some nasty climbs before, but I cannot stress how much bigger of a challenge this one was. This was not a stroll in the park – this was some serious Fellowship-crossing-the-mountains-to-avoid-the-Mines-of-Moria kind of thing. And just like Gandalf and his buddies had a nasty surprise from Saruman waiting for them up high, we also managed to get ourselves into a tight spot.
After riding up and down, up and down for the better part of the afternoon, we finally reached the summit at around 12,000 feet. Shrouded in a thick fog, we clicked on our lights, pulled on our gloves, and prepared for the long descent back to sea level. However, it soon became clear that this much-anticipated descent was not the joyous roll that we had expected. Poor visibility and brutally steep hairpin turns made for slow going. Our fingers ached with the cold and strain of so much braking.
We had hoped to hit the lowlands before night fell, but after hours of descending found ourselves still high in the mountains with darkness creeping up on us. To make matters worse, the thick fog had given way to a light rain, which was progressively intensifying into a torrential downpour. We kept telling ourselves that a town or clearing would be just around the next bend, but before we knew it the skies were pitch black and spitting rain and there was nothing in sight but thick woods above us and vertical cliffs below. Raindrops as big as fingernails beat down upon us as truck traffic lumbered by, making further downhill riding in the darkness a risky proposition. We were in desperate need of a campsite, but could only see about ten feet in any direction as we inched down the increasingly treacherous roads.
After a near miss with an oncoming semitruck, Alex yelled through the downpour that we needed to stop – right now. Panicked and soaked to the bone, we decided to set up our tent as fast as possible in a barely discernible clearing in the bend of the road. There was a lot of swearing involved, and our rushed setup resulted in a very wet tent and Alex getting stabbed in the eye by one of the poles. By the time the tent was standing, we were both freezing, furious, and not speaking to one another. To make matters worse, it quickly became clear that what we thought was a clearing was actually an overgrown dirt track, and our tent floor was perched atop the muddy ruts. Puddles that began below our tent were soon very much inside our tent. All of the clothes and electronics that we had hastily thrown inside were now being soaked from the ground up. There was nothing we could do but wait it out. We were prisoners of the circumstances and our own bad choices.
In all honesty, this was definitely the worst night of our trip thus far. Frustration and helplessness really put us through the wringer. We can’t say that we handled it very well. We were in unspoken agreement that we should have stopped before it got to this point, and we both thought that it was the other’s fault that we had kept going without heeding the fog, the dark, the rain. It didn’t help that we hadn’t eaten for about eight hours. Rather than buck up and get it together, we crouched in the tent, drenched and sulking, as the rain pounded down from the skies. After an hour or so of utter misery, the rain faded to a drizzle and we were able to relocate the tent to a flatter patch of vegetation, soak up the standing water with towels, and fall into a dreamless sleep.
We awoke to a damp tent, damp clothes, and damp morale. At least there were no standing pools of water remaining from the night’s deluge. When we pushed on, we found out to our dismay that we had been emergency camping just two minutes away from a small settlement with a nice big public covered area right at its entrance. To top it off, Alex discovered that at least some of the plants we had been blindly stomping around in the previous night had been poison ivy. Her wrists and thighs were covered in a progressively itchy, red rash that would stick around for a week. We tried to bolster our spirits and our energies with a quick breakfast of huevos rancheros, but were both still feeling pretty grim.
After breakfast, more descending brought us out of the chilly alpine surroundings and into the jungle. Big parrots squawked and flew over our heads, enormous banana trees lined the sides of the road, and a sudden rise in temperature and humidity marked our arrival in a new climate. By now certain that we would not see another rainy night for a long time, our moods lifted and we spent the afternoon rolling downhill and daydreaming about the upcoming beaches. By midday we reached the noisy town of Pochutla, where we sought out the first hotel we could find, took our first showers in five days, hung out all of our belongings to dry, and slept.
Only twenty kilometers out of Pochutla lay the ultimate reward for all of our pain: the beach town of Mazunte. After taking some serious abuse during our mountainous escapades, it was such a relief to simply descend towards the ocean. The road to Mazunte was completely devoid of cars, surrounded by lush jungle, and at the perfect incline to carry us straight into town with about four pedal strokes. It was heavenly. Less than 48 hours after our worst day, we were both exclaiming that this was the best day, the best road, and we hadn’t even hit the ocean yet!
Once there, we immediately fell in love with the place. Mazunte and its neighboring beach towns Zipolite and Puerto Ángel are still something of a well hidden secret, and not yet inundated with tourists. Better yet, it was low season – the whole town was practically empty. The prevalence of reiki studios and vegan cafes hinted at a hippie colony waiting to explode come December, but for now the coast was clear. We rolled right up to the beach, found a place to stay for half price, and rapidly resorted to full vacation mode. From the next door beach bar, Bob Marley crooned to us that every little thing was gonna be alright, and before we knew our worst night ever was but a distant memory.
What was intended as a one night deal in Mazunte turned into a five day holiday. We kept “busy” by swimming in the ocean, drinking too much cheap Mexican wine, watching the sun rise and set, and lounging about with a good book in our hands. Sometimes the best parts of our trip are the parts off our trip.
It’s easy to fall in love with the beach bum life, and the morning that we finally decided to leave was a hard one. And no, that’s not just because Mazunte was so great – the ride out was really tough, as if it was begging us to turn around and slip back into our cozy oceanside hammocks. The perfect road that had brought us into Mazunte turned into a brutal hilly beast of a thing with steep inclines little shade to filter out the blistering sunlight. We made slow progress as we pedaled east and inland.
Things got a little sad as night approached. Fearing we might not find a good campsite off the side of the road, we ended up camping at a Pemex, one of Mexico’s nationalized gas stations. Camping at the gas station is not something that we are particularly proud of in a general sense. It was also an inordinately hot, noisy, and fluorescently lit place to camp, which meant that our whole objective (sleep) was basically a failure. At least we added another unique camping location to our growing repertoire…
The next day was just more of the same. Rolling hills, brutal heat, energy draining humidity, what more could you ask for? It’s a small but not insubstantial reward that we got to enjoy the lush green jungle and occasional epic view of the Pacific Ocean while pushing our bikes over yet another hill. When we could push no more, we stopped at a little family owned restaurant in the village of Tapanala. Here we shmoozed our way into a nice camping spot in the family compound behind the restaurant, free and complete with a hammock. We’ll take it!
Not five minutes later, a local resident (who had had a few too many beers for three o’clock in the afternoon) approached us and offered us a place to stay at his house. And man, was this guy persistent. He insisted that this would be the defining moment in his children’s lives, that we would help them learn about brotherhood and world peace, that he would fill us with coffee and hot chocolate and little cakes to keep us happy. Initially we considered it, but it soon became clear just how intoxicated he was and just how bewildered his poor wife would be when he drunkenly showed up with two complete strangers. We thanked him numerous times for the generous offer, but clarified that we already had a place to stay.
Unfortunately, he didn’t want to hear any of it. Instead he rambled on and on about the love he has for his family and how we could have some of that same love if we would just – por favor! – come spend the night at his house. With our continued refusals he became increasingly rude and rather creepy, shushing us and saying that we would be coming with him to his house right now. After about twenty minutes and one shushing too many, Alex snarkily cut in and asked him whether she was allowed to speak or whether she had to keep listening to him indefinitely. He appeared a little taken aback, and after a moment’s thought replied that she was in fact not allowed to speak. Well, that was the end of that encounter. Alex suddenly needed to go to the bathroom, and my Spanish conveniently ceased to function altogether. Left with no one to talk to, he swore at us and ambled away in a drunken stupor.
As we were setting up camp, a tiny old woman came out of her home and stood hovering around the fringes of our campsite. We were still a little shaken from our earlier encounter and not particularly eager to have any more random conversations that day. However, after she sent a few furtive smiles our way, Alex went to say hello. Turns out we happened to be camping on her land, not the land of the restaurant owners. But not to worry – all was well again due to the all-powerful forces of God (smile, nod) and human equality. (Note from Alex: This little old lady actually needed a bit more affirmation than the smile-and-nod routine, and specifically wanted to know if I “had the word of God.” In the time it took me to figure out what she was talking about, I forgot to stick to my little white lie and instead gave what was most certainly the wrong answer. Word traveled fast – by the next morning there were groups of children standing around our tent, pointing at me, and fervently whispering about the poor gringa that did not have the word of God.) Ay, Dios mio!
After our strange night in Tapanala, we mutually agreed to hit the road on the early side. A long day of riding lay ahead of us to reach our next shower in Salina Cruz. To top if off, the wind was back in our faces and intent on making those last twenty or so kilometers as slow as molasses. Salina Cruz is a big industrial port town, powered by oil refineries and not a particularly impressive tourist destination. Nonetheless, it was kind of a relief to roll into town, find a hotel, and just hole up without feeling like we had to go sightsee. We also had some route planning to do, but we’ll save that for another post – on to Chiapas and the land of the Maya!