Chiapas


2017/01/10-15:
Gravel Pit Camp: 77, Ocosingo: 47, Comitan: 105 km.

Chiapas, in southernmost Mexico, is ranching country. Parts are very poor, and we had some tough days early in this stretch. Chris views this warts-and-all travel as “an education”. It certainly takes us outside the Dunbar bubble.

Palenque is relatively wealthy as a consequence of being near a major Mayan site. Our route southward from there took us past Agua Azul, a waterfall on the Lonely Planet Trail reached by various bus tours. We’d aimed to overnight there in a cabana, as we didn’t relish stealth camping in this hot jungle environment. Apart from lack of air conditioning, we are in the range of fer de lance vipers, not to mention spiders bigger than your hand. We stopped for second breakfast at peaceful Misol Ha waterfall, then continued.

Chris says whenever tourism abuts grinding rural poverty there are issues. It was hot and humid and the hills were steep. As we climbed, there were groups of kids holding lengths of string across the road, as they attempted to force us to stop and buy snacks we didn’t want. They aren’t at school, and their tactic is basically extortion. I asked the first group to drop the string; they didn’t; we stood on our pedals and rode through. I then stopped to try to explain we would not buy things if they held the string across the road. Their reaction was to taunt and throw water at me. We rode away with me seething, and then it happened again. Chris is more of a pacifist by nature.

There are protests happening here in Chiapas about rising gasoline prices and more. There is also a strong presence of both army and police. A little further on, men were blocking the road and handing out leaflets. I told Chris, who was ahead, to “Speak English.” He waved like an idiot, and called “Hello, hello hello.” The men dropped their rope at his goofball approach, and we rode through.

When we saw the police and the hoards of souvenir stands at the turnoff for Agua Azul we decided to skip it, and rode on by. This meant we needed to find a safe camping spot as darkness falls quickly here. As we approached a quarry at the top of a pass, I asked the workers if we could camp behind their quarters. They felt like a good lot, and welcomed us to pitch our tent beside a large truck. We could use their basic loos and their running water to wipe off sweat.

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Sheltered from the elements, and the deafening noise of the trucks engine brakes coming down the road.

Interestingly, the first thing they wanted to know was our religion. They were evangelical Christians, as is prevalent in rural Mexico. I feel they were trying to gauge our ethics as potential overnight neighbours. The discussion was not easy in my limited Spanish. I steered the conversation to broader topics of helping others, and to our strong support for both our countries’ policies of accepting refugees. Mexico has welcomed millions of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans.

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Buying coconut water outside a local school.

We decamped at dawn, and rode on to Ocosingo. The hotel we chose on the outskirts was modelled on a Hacienda, and built of tile and stucco. However, pounding amplified evangelism reverberated till the early hours through a door on one side that we could not close. We’d planned a single rest day, but when a second non-travel day was dictated by Chris’s intestines, a nightclub competed from the other side as well. The upside to Ocosingo was an interesting conversation with a travelling trio of an Englishman with his Italian wife and her cousin, who were on their way to Palenque by car. We had a wonderful chat at a café in the town centre.

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Stall selling horse gear to ranchers in Ocosingo

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Saddles at same stall

Yesterday we rode from Ocosingo to Comitan on a quiet road that took us to more open, higher country: ranching, corn and squash fields, surrounded by pine forest and logging. It felt as if the villages had hope and civic pride. Signs attempted to forbid garbage throwing, and even exhorted citizens to collect their dog excrement. It was was 105 km ride, with quite a few climbs.

Here in Comitan, we have found ourselves a quiet hotel with a shady courtyard. To get here last night, we pushed bikes up near vertical streets, slipping in bike shoes on the ridged surface. We are both taking antibiotics to deal with what we think is a bacterial form of Montezuma’s revenge that keeps following us. A second day off may be in store before we cross into Guatemala.

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A few statistics might help you understand the difficulty of that first day’s ride out of Palenque. Palenque had daytime highs in the thirties we need to climb to get out of that heat. First we climbed up, then almost completely back down before resuming the upward ride in the afternoon sun, while being pestered by a tense local environment. Google tells me we climbed about 1600m and the average road gradient was 1:28 (for comparison Cypress Bowl road is 1:16) so we had a lot of sitting in our lowest gears and grinding up at 5km/h. Our average speed was 10.8 km/h, we were in our saddles for over 7 hours. It was a grind, especially in the hotter afternoon and early evening. The good news is we are now out of the heat. Yesterday’s maximum on my handlebars was 23.6C, in the Yucatan the maximum was always over 35C.
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Merida to Palenque

2016/12/31-2017/01/08:
Calkini 90, Campeche 86, Champotón 71, Escargega 83, Candelaria 69, El Triunfo 47, Tenosique 72, Palenque 83 km.

Merida gave us a good farewell with a lively reenactment of a Mayan ball game on the eve of our departure. Since then, we’ve been rolling south and a little west, riding only in the mornings, staying mostly indoors in the afternoons, and exploring our surrounds in the evenings. We took a day off in Campeche, a city fortified against pirates, and since then the roads and terrain have begun to have more interest.

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Old Man of the Year

Our ride through villages early on New Year’s morning showed us the aftermath of festivities that include burning an effigy of the “old man of 2016.” Sometimes these are filled with firecrackers, for added excitement.  In some towns the lads were still drinking, and in others women and older men were busily tidying. Along the coast road from Campeche, we saw fishermen spreading basket loads of small fish to dry on cement slabs. Greedy pelicans waited for fallout as baskets were lifted off the boats.

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Bringing in the fish under the watchful eye of the pelicans

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Spreading out the  Anchovies?  on concrete.

From Tenosique we took a taxi to the ruins at Moral Reforma, and wandered quietly for about an hour. We were the only ones there, and according to the register we were the first visitors in several days! These are relatively newly discovered, and barely developed. There was little information, but the solitude was pleasant.

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Peace and some shade at Mayan site

Riding only in the mornings, we haven’t covered huge distances. We’re taking a day off here in Palenque, however, having altered our planned route.  We are in relative luxury in a Best Western, with the first bed since Cozumel where the bottom sheet actually stays in place. This morning, we took a collectivo (public mini bus) to the significant archeological site, and were the first to enter when it opened. We came back to town as the buses began to arrive, and settled into a café for coffee and second breakfast, and a friendly chat with a thoughtful woman from North Carolina.

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Palenque is famous for the quality of the artwork found.

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Mist over the fields at dawn

We’re now in Chiapas which is ranching country. Yesterday we did a 20 km stretch on dirt road, and at a Coke and chips stop in a tiny village, I chatted to senora’s brood of kids, asking their ages. Their response was accompanied by lots of giggles. As we got ready to leave, the small girl came out to us bearing a gift of four large oranges. Further on, we neared the junction with the main road to Palenque and a youth rode abreast of me on his motorbike and chatted at length. He was on his way to work in town, though I was unable to ascertain what he did. Arriving at our hotel, he greeted us enthusiastically as our bell boy, helping to store our bikes in a left luggage room.

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We see lots of guys on horses as we ride.

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In this terrain we are faster than horses


Changing Plans

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We have been seeing a very different view of the gasoline riots in Mexico.

Making our initial plans we didn’t know we would get hit by a heatwave. Cycling at 32C in the midday sun on the west side (shadeless) of the road is only for “mad dogs and Englishmen”. Geographically we are now able to head into the mountains and take advantage of two things:

1) The 6.5C temperature drop per 1000m elevation rise.
2) Terrain following windy roads, rather than flat straight roads.

Our plan A route had us going to various major pre-Hispanic sites. But these were all at low elevations because important historical places tend to be on waterway based trading routes. Reviewing our new route I still find things of historical interest, but chief among its appeals is riding winding roads that respect the terrain. We are also switching to a route used by a young U.K. family with two young cycling kids a couple of years ago. This provides us with our primary assurance of the safety of this new route.

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Izamal to Merida

2016/12/25-26: Izamal
12/27: 69 km to Telchac Puerto
12/28: 87 km to Merida
12/29-30: City sightseeing, errands

We’re still easing into this trip. As well as physiological acclimatization to heat and humidity, there is sensory and emotional adjustment to sights, smells, and sounds of a country at a different stage of development than our own. Beggars in Merida have limb deformities or skin conditions, whereas street people in wealthy Vancouver are “only” mentally ill. In Mexico there is virtually no social security. In Canada there is not enough support for the mentally ill. We try to understand the context rather than judge.

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Taking the wife for a ride in the “Yellow City” of Izamal

We had two quiet days in Izamal, with much of Christmas Day spent horizontal as I iced my sprained ankle. Izamal is on its way to UNESCO designation. In addition to churches and a large convent, there are several Mayan sites that are only partially excavated and among which we wandered like Indiana Jones ….only Indie watched his step.

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Impressive pyramid perhaps, but from an engineering point of view the less photogenic raised base which covers over 2 acres (8,000 m²) of ground and has a volume of some 700,000 cubic meters is more impressive.

On Tuesday we rode to Telchac Puerto on the north coast of the peninsula. Roads were still flat, but surrounding land was used for ranching or for growing sisal. (Agave sisalana or hennequen Agave fourcroydes) Sisal has been cultivated here as a source of fibre since Aztec and early Mayan times, and is still economically important. We passed a fibradora or factory where the plants are processed.

In Telchac Peurto we were greeted warmly by Marilyn, to whom we had been introduced by her son in Vancouver. She and her partner used to run a bed and breakfast, but are winding it down. First we joined Marilyn for a hugely appreciated dip in her pool. Later in the afternoon and evening she shared perspectives on life in both Belize and in the Yucatan. She is an Ottawa teacher who, since “retiring” has run a restaurant in Belize as well as tourist accommodation here in Mexico.

During the night in her cosy guesthouse, I heard what I thought was a tapping on the window pane. I was convinced someone was rapping on glass with a fingernail. Puzzled, I got up and went to the door. The noise stopped so I went back to bed, but then it began again. So it went on till I eventually stopped worrying about what it was, but next morning I described the sound to Marilyn who solved the mystery. It’s the noise geckos make as they call to each other at night.

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Black Necked Slilt (thank you Doc)

From Marilyn’s we rode westward to Progreso alongside mangrove lagoons where we saw flamingoes, pelicans, ibises,, herons, egrets, and more. Turning south from Progreso, we bit the bullet along the highway for a hot ride to Merida. We turned off Merida’s Paseo de Montejo – which was inspired by the Champs Élysée – and turned off to the area where bike shops are clustered. This was our longest day yet in this heat.

 

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No prizes for identification

After a few referrals, we found good quality new SRAM chains, having been last minute goofs to leave Vancouver without putting on the new ones we had on hand. Having found a shop with a trustworthy vibe reminiscent of our bike shop in Vancouver, we let Eduardo make minor spoke tension adjustments to my bike’s rear wheel. I suspect I hit some vicious Mexican speed bumps too hard before I learned you need to almost stop to cross them safely.

If you want a good bike shop in Merida, go to Rodada 21. (https://www.facebook.com/rodada21/) ¡Gracias Eduardo! La rueda esta funcionando bien y sin ruidos.

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Margo having a pleasant chat in Spanish with the guard of the modern art exhibit in the Pasaje de La Revolución

Here in Merida we are in very modest digs, which was all that was available when we booked. The night we arrived there was a presentation in the central square with an actor playing the part of the Conquistador Francisco de Montejo from the balcony of his historic home, and a Mayan chief responding to him from the street below. Their dialogue described historic struggles, with Francisco lisping in Castilian (European) Spanish. An English translation of the dialogue was projected on the wall just beside Casa de Montejo.

Yesterday we mailed a parcel homeward, having realized we had overpacked for cold weather. We took a city bus tour in the afternoon, visiting different quarters and monuments. Today we did errands. I bought a new water bottle, insulated being the only kind available here. We were happy to find laundry soap in bar format. Who wants to carry a huge bag of detergent?

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Mural in Governor’s Palace. The series describes Mayan struggles and emancipation.

Yes, we are starting to get into the groove. Tomorrow we’ll set out toward Campeche, which will likely be a two day ride.

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Hitting the Road 

2016/12/19: 85 km to Tulum
12/20: 50 km to Coba
12/21: Visit Ruins – Chris mostly in bed
12/22: 63 km to Valladolid – visit Chichen Itza
12/23: 66 km to Yozdonote Cenote, camping
12/24: 65 km to Izamal

Iguanas are everywhere

This has been a week of adjustment from the resort to the road experience. There have been physical and mental challenges, but we’re easing our our bodies into the new routine by rising early to start pedalling at dawn, then stopping by noon when possible. Our daily distances are relatively short, which isn’t a bad idea for old bodies at the start of what may be a long trip in a challenging climate.

Coastal view at Tulum

The first day took us down the busy coastal road to Tulum, where we walked to a spectacularly situated fortified Mayan trading post – strategically placed for traders who paddled canoes inside the protective Meso-American barrier reef. At a gas station on the road to Coba, we crossed paths with a pair of German touring cyclists heading south via Belize. We were both under the weather as we slowly walked through the ruins the next morning, especially Chris who sat in the shade rather than climb the pyramid.

We’ve been on long straight roads that make for rather boring cycling, but we think this will change fairly soon. The further we get from the Mayan Riviera, the more relaxed and friendly our interactions at roadside food and drink stops seem to have become. Our ride to Valladolid was punctuated by a couple filming us from their shiny new pick up truck as we rode, then stopping to film us again as we passed them. They called out Feliz Navidad as they drove off, to which I replied Buen Año y prosperidad.

Cathedral of San Gervasio, Valladolid

We cycled on to Valladolid, checked into a modest hotel and rested before walking around the colonial town during cooler hours. We had a mid-afternoon meal in something like a food court, where fellows at each food outlet would beckon by calling out and urgently waving their menus as if to summon us. At first I thought I was being especially targeted as a foreigner, but we quickly realized this was standard practice, as was the whisking away of our plates the second we’d finished eating our cochinilla pibil – pork on a bun – with meat that has been marinated in sour orange juice and slowly roasted. We notice that boys or men in this bussing role, in Valladolid and elsewhere, all have red cloths tucked into their belts. Your plate is literally snatched once you lower your fork after taking that final bite, and the table is speedily wiped with the red cloth. We had noticed the surprising speed of plate removal at the resort, too. Speed-of-light table clearing must be a Mexican custom.

Ceramics for sale at Chichén Itzá

From Valladolid, we rode to Chichen Itza – probably the biggest and best known Mayan site in Mesoamerica – and left our loaded bikes beside some motorbikes under the watchful eye of the man in the parking parking lot booth, and tipped him beforehand for his efforts. He accepted this, but didn’t seem to have expected it. Chris called it well worthwhile for the peace of mind, as we strolled from huge pyramid to ball court to sacrificial cenote before the busloads from Cancun arrived. The local Mayans have the right to sell handicrafts inside the site, but it was early enough that they were just setting up their tables.

Pyramid at Chichén Itzá

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Yokdzonot Cenote

 


We rode on to one of the many cenotes that dot the Yucatan peninsula. These are freshwater- filled sinkholes in the karst limestone, and some are connected to underground rivers. I had read that as cenotes were used by the Mayans for practical and spiritual purposes, they were now managed for recreational use by local Mayans. I haven’t learned to distinguish Mayans from other Mexicans, but I think two seated matriarchs fulfilled the role of oversight, while others sold tickets, supervised swimming, and manned a zipline across the cavern for a few shrieking teenagers.

We were fitted with “obligatory” life vests and descended about 30m of rocky pathway and slippery ladders to a poolside platform. I was floating happily in the 24 degree water, as I learned the word for “skinny” by chatting to another woman about how long Chris was taking to immerse himself. I knew that fat was gordo so I asked for the opposite, and we giggled about Chris being flaco.

Our cenote swim was magical! We were almost alone when we arrived. Below us was an endless depth of aqua water, and fern-draped walls of strange rock formations rose to the opening above. Long roots hung down, and small fish darted about. Then a few groups arrived, including some Aussies. A small boy jumped in and shrieked in horrified surprise “Mama, ay pesces!!!!” Everything echoes. And yes, there are fish.

After swimming, we ate in the Mayan restaurant and pitched our tent on a tent platform above. We started cycling at 7:00 this morning, reaching Izamal where we found a very relaxed hotel with a courtyard where we plan to spend a quiet Christmas Day.

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First Week in Mexico

2106/12/12-18: Cancún and Cozumel
Our flight arrived three hours late in Cancún, and we made our way through a border system designed to inhale tourists into a resort area of Mexico. Having missed our shuttle, we took a mini van taxi to a nearby hotel with our boxed bikes. My Spanish is not flowing well, but I think the exchange with our driver showed the communication gap was beyond linguistic. He asked if we had “transportation” for our stay in the area, and I replied “We have bicycles.” He responded “But do you have transportation?” This went on for several iterations.

We assembled bikes that evening, grabbed a bite at Subway, and fell into bed. The following morning, we set off by bike in the unaccustomed 34 degree heat to ride the 80 km plus ferry to Ibersostar Cozumel and meet my cousin Michael and his friend known as Binda. The road was busy, but it was dead flat and we had a light following wind. The only excitement was seeing a large constricting snake that had met a sorry end. Our arrival must have been unconventional for an all inclusive resort. I think we appreciated more than most the tall glass of juice we were served, but it seemed incongruous to be offered help getting from the front desk to our room.
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Apart from a spin to test a gear adjustment, our bikes have remained parked in our room while we’ve swum, snorkelled, and sailed a Hobie cat. Our main activity, however, has been solving the world’s problems over dinner, taking only brief breaks from conversation to make second and third trips to the dessert table.
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We’ve come from an unusual Vancouver cold snap to the tropics, and everything is new and exotic to us. Walking to the dining room, we admire the variegated foliage and watch iguanas vie for the best branches. The big tough guys bob their heads to threaten lesser lizards. A tortoise parked herself beside our balcony for a while, and we turned her around in case she was stuck. A pair of peccaries trotted by one evening. We snorkelled from shore, but also took a boat outing to three different locations on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, seeing different fauna at each stop. We saw sea turtles for the first time – two of them twirling in a slow and graceful dance.

On Monday we’ll take the ferry back to the mainland and ride south to our first archeological site at Tulum, and from there we’ll head inland.

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