After our long detour through the hilly southern reaches of Chiapas, we were eager to reach Palenque and its famed ruins. The ancient city of Palenque is situated high upon a hill, giving it a commanding view of the expansive flatlands of the Yucatan peninsula to the east (modern Palenque town sits in the valley at the foot of that hill and is swelteringly hot – the ancients got it right.) The ruins themselves were well spread out and covered everything from pyramids to the obligatory ball parks. And if you don’t know anything about these ball parks yet, let me tell you. Apparently the ancients used to play some kind of hipball where they tried to maneuver a rubber ball through a vertical ring. Whoever scores first, wins, and the losers get sacrificed. Pretty harsh if you ask me.
Anyways, back to the ruins. Walking up the mighty steps of the multiple temples made our sweat run quite a bit, not just due to their steepness (why the heck did these short little Mayans build all these really steep stairways?) but also because it was the middle of the day without a cloud in the sky. Even though we had declined the services of a 1000 peso guide, we were nonetheless able to figure out what was what based on the many explanatory signs at the ruins. The walk through the ruins ended with a series of small waterfalls that were, without trying to sound cheesy, quite magical to look at. The only real bummer was that we saw the site on a Monday which meant that the museum, which is supposed to be pretty cool, was closed. Yet, even without that, we both really enjoyed the Palenque ruins.
Then it was back to riding. Now let me make one thing perfectly clear before you continue on, dear valued reader of this formidable blog of ours. We’ve had our fair share of tough riding so far: we’ve climbed mountains in the worst rains, we’ve crossed deserts in the toughest heat, we’ve faced unforgiving headwinds and homicidal drivers. But nothing, none of all the things that came before, could prepare us for the absolute monotony and boredom that lay ahead of us. Riding for the next couple of weeks across the Yucatan Peninsula was a vastness of bland, an ocean of blah. Roads as flat as a tortilla and straight as an arrow for countless kilometers on end, not a single challenging ascent, no sweet rush of a hard-earned downhill, nothing of any significance in terms of cycling. Boy, oh boy!
So instead of boring you to death by recollecting what happened on the road, let me give you some tidbits and pictures from the things that went on off the bikes.
For starters, the holiday season was finally upon us, and we had quite a nice little substitute-Thanksgiving in the middle of nowhere in a town called Chicbul. With no hotels in sight, we got lucky to find a woman who was renting out spare rooms. We settled in and (obviously) got to thinking about dinner. Turkeys were everywhere, but they were all gobble-gobbling along and it would have been hard to catch one and cook it on our camp stove. But mashed potatoes we could do, and beer saved the day. Om nom nom!
Between Sabancuy and Campeche we met a friendly couple on bikes from the UK named Ruth and Will. At that point, they were the first fellow cyclists we’d encountered in several months. Coincidentally they crossed our path not ten minutes after Alex’s seat post clamp broke. Their good cheer brought us out of our funk, and they diligently searched their bags for a spare screw that might at least get us to the next town. Even though that spare screw was nowhere to be found (a new 1970s-era clamp was waiting for us thirty kilometers down the road), it was still great to chat with them and compare route notes. After half an hour we bid them farewell and watched them speed off with the wind strong at their backs, moving in the oppsite direction from where we were headed.
In a last ditch effort, we fashioned a makeshift seat post clamp out of lots and lots of duct tape, which we were really proud of until it promptly failed five seconds after Alex sat on it. With no other options, we made slow as molasses progress for the next three hours, both of us grinding against the headwind and Alex swinging back and forth with every pedal stroke on her low-as-can-go saddle. (By the way, Ruth and Will have a really good blog about their trip at http://www.contoursofacountry.com. They write up every encounter with fellow bike travelers – we’re here.)
With the seat post back in action, we made our way to the city of Campeche, a place we had been looking forward to for some time. Well, it turned out to be a dud. Its historical center was nicely renovated, but felt as sterile as a theme park attraction, which was exemplified by the lack of local residents and the overabundance of tourists. It also didn’t help that none of the stores were selling alcohol, street food was nowhere to be found, and restaurants were closing early. What a bummer!
The night before we got to the regional hub of Merida we had our scariest and ultimately most embarrassing experience yet. We had ridden more than fifty miles that day and were plenty exhausted by the time we hit the city of Calkiní. After two unsuccessful attempts to camp at the local balneario and college, we spotted an abandoned building with a nice big backyard safely tucked away from the street’s view. Happy to have found the place, we set up camp quickly and tucked into the tent to hit the hay as darkness descended around us. We were almost asleep when the unthinkable happened. All of a sudden, lights flicked on inside the house! Both Alex and I froze. Upon initial inspection the building had looked completely deserted: no furniture inside, overgrown yard, no people around, no fence, no dog, et cetera. We’ve slept in our fair share of abandoned buildings in Mexico, and thought we knew how to spot a good one. But no, apparently someone was still living in there, and we had put our tent smack-dab in his backyard.
We frantically ran through the possibilities. Packing up without being seen was impossible, even in the dark of night, so we kept hoping the building maybe wasn’t a house after all, maybe just a storage facility for the college across the street. Or if it was a house, maybe it really was unoccupied and the owner just had timer lights installed to keep people away at night. After all, there were no sounds from inside, no radio or television blaring, no people tallking. Well, no such luck for us. Before long someone stepped outside and into the backyard, his figure only a silhouette against the light. Alex and I held our breath, our pulses racing and hearts thumping. The mysterious stranger didn’t move. Had he seen us? After what felt like an eternity he turned around, went back inside, and turned off the lights. After a few tense minutes, we breathed a big sigh of relief and thought the worst was behind us.
We calmed down and after thirty minutes or so were ready to doze off again when the lights went back on! Within an instant we sat bolt upright in our sleeping bags. The back door opened, and this time two men stepped out. But unlike the first time they didn’t just stop there – they walked right towards our tent, slowly but deliberately. Clearly we’d been spotted. To my horror, I could see that both of them had their hands on their machetes. I unzipped the tent door a little further and, when they were just a few meters from our tent, called out a timid “Hola?” in their direction. To my surprise, I heard a booming “Hola amigo!” from one of the men. Then nothing.
Completely stumped by this reply, my Spanish language skills (the few that there are) went right out the window and after a few seconds of awkward silence a trembling Alex poked her head out of the tent and started babbling apology after apology in all the Spanish she could muster, trying to explain just why there were two gringos in a tent in this man’s backyard. (Note from Alex: “Good evening is this your property oh my God oh no we’re so sorry we thought your house was abandoned we’re traveling on bikes we’re from los Estados Unidos we needed a place to camp tonight this is so embarrassing we thought no one lived here we can leave right now we’re so sorry.” Something like that.) Upon hearing this the men laughed, clapped each other on the back, and the tension melted out of the air. They were probably just as frightened about the mysterious tent in their backyard as we were about the two shadowy men emerging from the darkness. Of course we offered to leave, but – this being Mexico – the men replied with “Descansen! Descansen!” (Rest! Rest!) and urged us to stay put for the night. If we would have pulled the same stunt in the US we probably would have had to face the police (or worse). Lucky for us that Mexicans are way more chill than that!
In Merida we celebrated my birthday with tons of food (including a giant tiramisu cake) and ended up in a bar with a crazy, cocaine-addled bar tender. Alex even got an old geezer to sing me a nice birthday song while we were sipping beers with some French Canadians we had met earlier that night.
Out of Merida we reached the town of Muna where, at long last, we got to spend the night at a presidencia again. But our peaceful sleep was harshly interrupted shortly before midnight when a madman began yelling through a loudspeaker a few hundred yards away. At first we thought it was a local drunk who’d found a sound system, but then we went out to peek and found a riled up preacher screaming God’s directives at a bunch of hand-waving women. When we asked the police what the hell was going on and why it was going on so very late at night, they just shook their heads in disbelief. The next morning we found out that we had the local Jehovah’s Witnesses to thank for the display.
After that little bit of fun we went to see the ruins of Uxmal, this time with a guide. Alex had been to Uxmal when she was little, and was excited to see whether it was really as cool as she remembered it. (Note from Alex: It was!) Touring the pyramids was fun, and it was refreshing to get some history while wandering around the vast buildings, but I also had a blast eavesdropping on an enormous group of German tourists as they complained about the weather and the tour guides. We also had the chance to do a bit of off-site exploring, following a footpath behind the last tourist-approved ruin back to a whole complex of unexcavated buildings and panoramic views.
Soon after, I got to experience the first serious problem with my bike: two broken spokes, both on the drive side of my rear wheel. Changing spokes is not a problem (we carry spares with us and have a spoke key handy); however, on the drive side you need to take off the cassette to access the spokes – which requires a chain whip and a big ol’ wrench and a few other things that seemed too big to stuff in our panniers. Even worse, sunset was fast approaching and we were on a near-empty road heading for a rural town in the middle of frickin’ nowhere. Our temporary solution was to strap our big tent bag onto Alex’s rear rack and have me ride standing up to reduce the weight on my back wheel until we could fix the problem. When we finally reached the tiny town of Sotuta fifteen kilometers later, the police let us camp at the presidencia and leave our things there the next morning while we tramped all over town in search of the tool we needed. We talked to about a dozen makeshift mechanics – our favorite of which had his three year old kid practicing wheel building on his front porch. None of them had the tools we needed.
Right when we decided to give up we had the goood fortune of stumbling across across another cyclist, a retired engineer from Munich who just so happened to be taking a break from the midday heat in the town plaza. He had exactly the tool that would do the job – the Hypercracker, the touring cyclist’s tiny equivalent of a chain whip and a big ol’ wrench. (Note from Alex: first the Brits ride by minutes after my seat post clamp breaks, then a German shows up with the exact tool I had been cursing myself for not buying ahead of time. These were the third and fourth cyclists we’d seen after six months in Mexico, and they both magically appeared when we’re in crisis mode. We owe some sort of pagan offering to the road gods after this one.) To our dismay, after an hour of sweating and wrenching even this option proved fruitless – for some reason the Hypercracker refused to pop the casette off my rear wheel.
Eventually we decided to ride (or hobble) out of town – Alex hauling way too much weight and me standing on my pedals – to the next town twenty kilometers away, where we hopped on a bus that took us the rest of the way to Valladolid. There we tried two more bike shops before we finally found a third that could help us out of our misery. Getting the cassette off took two guys, who both had to apply their entire body weights before the damn thing finally gave way. Alex was more than happy to hand the tent bag back to me and I was glad that I could finally sit down on my saddle again. With that problem finally out of the way, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and settled into the town of Valladolid to enjoy its laid back atmosphere and the best tamales I’ve had in all of Mexico.
After Valladolid we made a stop at the ruins of Cobá, a sprawling site with the occasional pyramid here and there. We had hoped to bring our bikes inside to speed things up a bit, but were told that we would have to pay a fee equivalent to renting a bike from the tour operators. No thanks! So we walked a lot. To our surprise, what made our visit so special wasn’t the ruins themselves but the flurry of Russian visitors that jam-packed the area. What made them so special was their absolute confidence in being dressed appropriately. That meant tight, bright yellow shorts and reflective aviators for the men; skimpy stripper skirts, stripper heels, and really big hair for the women. All this while scooting up and down a huge pyramid on their butts, some of them crying a little bit. Absolutely fabulous.
After the visual masterpiece of Cobá, we rolled into the tourist mecca of Tulum and settled down at a campsite right on the beach. While scouting out different places we experienced something of a price shock. With the popularity of the place still on the rise, Tulum has adopted luxury US prices for food and lodging, and that didn’t really fit with our budget plans. To make it work we swore off eating out and went back to preparing every single meal by ourselves. The only time we actually splurged in Tulum was for a dive trip that ended with a waterlogged GoPro and both of us (and a chunky Hungarian) violently vomiting over the side of the boat. To make matters worse, Alex couldn’t stop throwing up for the next two days and developed a high fever that left her lying flat in the tent while I switched out cold compresses on her forehead. And all the while, the very professional campground operators kept telling her that all she needed was a little weed and a beer and she would feel much better! A Mexican knockoff of Aleve eventually did the trick and slowly Alex recovered.
The riding after Tulum was just more of the same: flat, straight and boring. The wind was blowing straight in our faces, and we wondered what we had done to offend Mexico such that she would save the worst riding for last? Why, Mexico, why? Our days were long streams of podcasts punctuated by the occasional shade break in a urine-smelling bus stop. The only interesting thing that happened was that we one night, for a change, didn’t sleep on the side of the road but literally on the road. It was a blocked off stretch of perfectly good highway, and we felt kind of sketchy about it but there was literally nowhere else to stay.
On our last full day before leaving Mexican soil (December 23), the winds suddenly shifted to our backs and we rolled into the scenic town of Bacalar, located on the shores of Laguna Bacalar, the second-biggest lake in Mexico. We almost immediately met an older Canadian guy who invited us to camp at his American neighbor’s small hotel (we later learned that Bacalar has become something of an expat hotspot). The upside: the campsite was right on the water, quite scenic, and we had unlimited access to hot showers. The downside: his neighbor Carolyn charmingly informed us that it was “all about the money” and charged us 250 pesos, thereby setting a new record high for Mexican campsite prices. Carolyn also spoke Spanish with the heaviest American accent you’ve ever heard.
In the end, despite the stupidly high pricetag, we ended up enjoying our stay at Casita Carolina. After a few beers, Carolyn’s accent was nearly bearable and – to our glee – she had decided to screen “A Christmas Story” on a big projector that night. We were in dire need of some Christmas cheer, and what better way to celebrate than with Ralphie shooting his eye out? So yes, that’s how we finished off our six month stay in Mexico, laughing along to an American Christmas classic, drinking beer, and enjoying the company of aging expats. Que será, será.