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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by caliform, Nov 25, 2015.
Your wonderful photos take me there.
"The temple itself was once the shrine to Tepoztecatl, an Aztec god of booze. Particularly, pulque, the agave pulp drink you can find in Central México. I’m not a huge pulque fan, but the Aztecs believed it was one of the best things you could imbibe and even had an entire god dedicated to it."
Drinking to your god can't be a sin !!!
OK, I am actually fixing up my bike to resume this trip in two weeks, so I have a little bit of time to catch up the report til we resume. All the way south, guys!
It was an early enough morning for us waking up in our tube hotel. Today an interesting challenge awaited us: circumnavigating the periphery of México City as we pushed eastward through the old Pass of Cortés (aka ‘Paso de Cortés).
It’s a pass drenched in history; supposedly Cortés, the Spanish conquerer of the Aztecs, marched his army through this pass to bring the native Mexicans of yore to heel. They fought the Mexicans at Cholula (yes, like the hot sauce…) and then went right up to Moctezuma’s home. Some strong tales of soldiers going into the volcanoes nearby to extract sulfur survive. Hmm, we should try doing that…
Nah, all that wasn’t really on our mind today: it was a lot of miles there, and we’d had some scattered reports that the path which ran through the saddle between two mighty volcanoes was pretty tough. Wikipedia listed it as ‘at least sometimes drivable’. That’s perfect, sounds like fun!
Our route for today. We rose from our tube home
And got some really rather great breakfast at the local haunt Les Colorines.
It’s a beautiful pink building and you can grab some of the pulque this area is so known for. We also ran into some fellow adventure riders from Mexico City!
Ahh, this isn’t helping Stu’s KTM envy at all.
Anyway, time to hit the road. I turned the key on the HP2 and it instantly popped my taillight. Cool, nice.
Popped a new one in there. On to the highway!
We had a bit of highway slabbing until we made it to the short paved section up to the pass. Mexico never gets enough credit for how spectacular its roads are; this is right outside of Mexico City and it is breathtaking. Smoldering volcanoes lie asleep between rolling hills as you ascend slowly through corn fields, lush forest and small farms.
This dip-in was the beginning of a pine tree-studded road absolutely riddled with turns. You couldn’t keep the bike upright for more than about a third of a second. It was pure joy and we took zero photos. Seriously. what a fun road. We saw absolutely nobody go up here and made it up the pass in about an hour or so.
There’s a small cultural center at the top where you can learn about the history of the pass but also the volcanoes. There it is: Popo. Popocatépetl. The big pope.
Not only is it a massive volcano, it’s actually still active. It has small eruptions all the time and you can see the plume of its smoke coming out of it here. It’s quiet.
Perhaps too quiet.
This thing is the 5th highest peak in all of North America, and the 2nd in Mexico. It’s kind of insane that it is sitting within striking distance of the most populous area of Mexico, with all of its massive power able to probably wipe out millions of people. For now, it’s a great backdrop for a motorcycle.
We kept our guard, of course, in case this would suddenly turn into a scene from the 1997 disaster flick ‘Volcano‘. With some help, Tommy Lee Jones would suddenly appear too. Or Anne Heche… on second though, we’d rather have her around.
Glam shot time! Which one is your favorite? I have a favorite. It’s the blue one.
After our incessant clicking away with cameras we rode to the visitor center and met this huge fantastic family from Puebla! They loved the bikes and we took a ton of photos with them. I love how friendly they are around these parts, they even offered us candy and snacks (and soda, always soda…).
Anyway, it was time to make it down that supposedly ‘sometimes traversable’ dirt road.
It’s beautiful. As soon as you start descending from the visitor station, it’s a rather sandy and dusty affair, but the views are insane. The entire valley soon stretches ahead of you with Puebla and Cholula in the distance, and turn after turn drops you slowly through forests of pine trees which give way for deciduous forests that grow on crumbling hillsides. The volcanic rock that sticks out at times is beautiful and jagged, and roots and sand washes keep it interesting.
We both kept a pretty good speed and as I’m perhaps a middling dirt rider I’d rate the route a 5/10 in terms of difficulty. There’s definitely some gnarly parts that could wipe you out if you’re not paying attention as well as some deep sand that’s always fun to wiggle around in at speed, but nothing you can’t handle if you take your time or pay attention. We did a bit of both.
We stopped only once for a sip of water. What a ton of fun this road is. We again, didn’t run into anyone else, and quickly flicked the bikes around the final turns down to a disappointingly well paved road.
There it was, we’d finally cleared the pass. Much like history and Cortés, it now lay behind us, and Popo smiled as we left it growing smaller and smaller in our rear view mirrors. I was daydreaming about the pass and the magnificence of the volcanoes… and trying to steer around a pack of stray dogs when I saw Stu’s KLR hit a tope at speed in front of me and narrowly managed to avoid his panniers which comically flew off with a big arc.
He should really fasten these things a bit better, a tope always sends them flying. There they are!
A nice opportunity to snap another headshot. Calm. It stopped smoking. Probably better for its health.
We had a brief stop in Cholula! Right next to a historic buried pyramid and beautiful church, there’s an ostensibly Dutch bar. They might have the snacks I crave the most from home: bitterballen. Fried little balls filled with meat ragout. Alas, they were closed. Holidays.
Pretty church, though.
We weaved through celebration traffic (seriously, there was a ton of traffic) to the downtown area of Puebla, where we were sure we could find somewhere to stay.
Did we mention we really never make reservations? We figured it’d be easy enough to find a hostel or somewhere else so we could enjoy the festivities right in the middle of town. We parked on the zocalo (the main square) and started looking around for hotels.
Such a beautiful square. Puebla is a gorgeous town. It’s also a pretty busy town when it comes to festivities, apparently, because we couldn’t find a single hotel anywhere. Just when we were about to give up, we found a sort of refurbished governor’s mansion that was turned hostel… and it turned out they had a spot for us!
What a spot!!! This might be the most beautiful parking spot we’ve ever had on this ride. Did we mention this place was a steal? The only catch was that they were having a gala that night. We weren’t invited, and we’d have to move the bikes into a hallway near the kitchen. Fine with us! We got a spot!
We met some of the fellow travelers at the hostel and went out with them to grab…
Ah, the life giving dark Bohemia beer. I really love this stuff. Damn. As usual there’s several local Mexican treats to try here, and Puebla has a bunch of great ones. Mole Poblano is pretty well known, but the ‘Cemita’ is less famous. It’s a sesame seed sandwich with chicken or pork cutlet, mayo, avocado, and just tons of good stuff. It’s probably one of my new favorite sandwiches!
Mei is one of the backpackers we ran into at the hostel. She’s an NY film student and was fending off practically the entire male population of our hostel, who were all trying to get lucky with her on New Year’s Eve.
Her way of dealing with it was beer. Always a good idea.
After dinner and beers, I did some work on my laptop as Stu got ready for a date with a girl. He'd certainly see the inside of a traditional Mexican family that night. A story he should certainly tell here himself.
As droves of people celebrated in the city, I went to a local bar to make some new friends and drink my favorite dark Mexican beers until the celebration and dancing reached a crescendo at midnight. I couldn’t have been happier to ring in the New Year.
The next day I woke up with a blurry brain, a soft pounding reminder of walking the bustling streets into the city, the round of Heinekens I bought my newly made Mexican friends and a New Year’s Eve party at another hotel rooftop that I snuck into at 2 AM. It was a night to remember, and a great way to kick off a year of adventure.
It was a crisp morning in Puebla. It doesn’t really get that cold in these parts of Mexico, but if you’d ask the local they would probably have a different opinion. People were huddled up in thick sweaters.
OK, it wasn’t actually morning. We had a bit of a long night, and I got up without a sign of Stu. He eventually made it back to the hotel just in time for some breakfast — another cemita, of course — and we had a bit of a wander around quiet Puebla.
This helmet, though:
A new year means New Year’s markets, apparently, and the they had all sorts of interesting things to peruse:
Also cats, which were not for sale:
I recalled the Dutch restaurant that we ran across when stopping in Cholula and I’d reached out on Facebook to see if they would be open. They excitedly replied ‘Claro!’, so that was the lunch plan. It would give us a great chance to visit Cholula’s historic church and Aztec ruins.
Time to get out of this beautiful parking spot! It’s a 20 minute ride to Cholula from downtown Puebla. Make it 35 when you’re hungover, hungry and a bit slow.
The two dots near Cholula are Puebla and Cholula. Tehuacán is our stop for tonight, and Oaxaca our goal!
Cholula is an unglamorous city sitting in the shadow of the giant volcanoes that separate it from Mexico City. Today, it was quiet; it seemed nobody was out and every shop and restaurant was closed.
Not so much the church, of course! Mexicans really love churches, and today was a special day, with people all about the church and common areas. The church here actually sits on an Aztec pyramid, which has been covered in dirt and grass as the ages relentlessly buried it in time.
I am sure building a church on top of it didn’t exactly help the situation.
In some areas, you can still visit the ruins and admire the incredible scale and craftsmanship of the Aztecs. A genuinely fascinating and impressive society that was completely eradicated.
Oh, and for the Dutch restaurant? We arrived at the ruins and church only to find it closed. Just like every other restaurant and shop. A taco stand managed to cool my hangriness, but I was very, very upset.
So I suppose after taco lunch it was time to get on the road. From Puebla we had less of a clear goal: we really wanted to just get to Oaxaca. There’s brilliant riding between here and there, but for now it was a lot of highway in some very urban areas.
Sometimes, the volcanic nature of the landscape surprised you as you rounded a turn…
And light played beautifully on long stretches of roadway.
Finally, we arrived in Tehuacan as the sun was setting and angry clouds were starting to gather. It’s never a really great idea to ride at night, let alone in countries like Mexico, so this would be home for tonight.
Did I mention we’ve been blessed with unreal weather? This was the first sign of that changing. A very orange sunset betrayed moisture in the air, and the clouds amassing on the horizon made us realize we probably wanted to avoid camping tonight and grab a quick motel.
Tehuacán was an interesting industrial town. After having a chat with the ladies that ran the motel we walked across a myriad of train tracks to a set of working-people-neighborhood restaurants that happily served up food on a day where so many other places were closed.
Another new favorite food discovered: tacos al arabe. Kind of like a kebab meets a taco.
Tehuacán might have many redeeming, beautiful and even interesting sights but as we arrived late and it was a holiday, we’d have to skip most of it. We were on a mission to get to Oaxaca, anyway!
When dawn broke we realized just how colorful our choice of lodging really was! Little did we know this was but a taste of things to come…
To get from Tehuacán to Oaxaca you have two options: The toll road, 135D, or the free Ruta 135, which is looking exceptionally twisty and fun. The border between the states of Puebla and Oaxaca is also a unique transition into a high desert.
This map again: sticking to the twisty 135. Where are we?
Starting to get pretty close to the end of Mexico! This is where things start getting noticeably different: different climates, environments, our first jungles, and the edge of Aztec Mexico as it starts to transition to ancient Mayan Mexico.
Fortunately, unlike the explorers of yore, we had faster means of transportation than donkeys, and these roads have beautiful, curvy tarmac to carve with our tires.
What a unique landscape out here. It reminded us of Baja, but at such altitudes and with such desolation. Morbidly brown, dry mountainsides with dramatic rock striations.
Stu loves a good rock.
We made occasional water breaks; it was getting warmer as we descended towards Oaxaca. We also stopped just to take some photos, because these curves lent themselves to some dramatic sweeping.
If there’s ever a need for a promotional image of Ruta 153, we humbly submit this one:
Note the green stuff on the next mountain over. We’d successfully escaped the arid region and were now heading into the hills around Oaxaca, which surprisingly bloomed with actual green vegetation. It was wetter here, and the air hitting our faces felt warmer with every turn.
It was also the lower sun that was now shining in our face. It was getting dark by the time we rolled into Oaxaca.
Oaxaca (pronounced kind of like Wa-Hakka) is a state in Mexico that’s very well known for its culture and scenery. It’s pretty vast, stretching almost from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and almost smack dab in the middle of it sits Oaxaca City. Once an area of settlements of warring Zapotec and Mixtec natives, the greatest ruin that reminds you of its past is on hill outside of town called Monte Alban, which is the site of an Aztec fortress that was once used to maintain a military presence to rule the area.
When the Spanish came around, they used a their traditional, exceptional peacemaking technique to finally end generations of fighting between the locals by killing basically everyone and enslaving whoever remained.
They also established what is now modern day Oaxaca city, which gives it its beautiful colonial architecture.
It was far too late for us to make it up the hill, so we wandered town for local specialties: mole, chocolate, art, and one I’d heard of since Baja: mezcal. Oh boy, do I love mezcal.
Side note: apologies for the photo quality drop as we often avoid walking with big cameras in unknown cities at night. You never know…
The streets were slammed with people, music, and food. Oaxaca is a sublime city, one I truly loved the moment I started wandering around in it. If you’re not in the colonial cobblestone streets you’re walking through covered walkways filled with people and stalls.
There was also some kind of party happening (in Mexico? You don’t say!) and people were in costumes, playing music and having an incredible time. There were balloons all around the place and people selling various edibles and beverages including this rather fantastic rig:
Nevermind, I decided to grab a camera.
I love the image Stu took of me with this kid, who kept calling me ‘Thor’. There were actual people in costume there, like Captain America, and I guess I looked the part!
Apart from the bucolic zocalo and the partying locals, another treasure of this place that we kept coming back to was chocolate. I don’t think I’ve ever had the feeling like chocolate was a drug. Some people (cough, girls) joke about how chocolate is a drug to them, and something they need to keep them happy. Sound recognizable?
Well, we’re near the birthplace of chocolate. The word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl word chocolātl. Aztecs loved the stuff. And sure enough, the chocolate here is insane.
We had a cup at this particular place, Oaxaca en Una Taza (Oaxaca in a cup). It wasn’t just good; I felt invigorated and pulsing with energy until 3 AM. I’ve had highs from drugs that were less intense. If you’re in Oaxaca City, you owe it to yourself to get a hot cocoa or a mocha here. Who knows, perhaps they slipped some amphetamines in our cup, but it was a real experience.
After the joys of mole and chocolate we indulged in some mezcal (ahem, some) and we hit the bed.
We got an early start the next day just taking in the city and its sights.
There’s always an ‘interesting bike of the city’ we find, and this one is awesome. I’d do a RTW trip on it, you?
Some kind of dog show! These good boys were doing a very good job following commands. As far as our experiences with dogs in Mexico go, they must be the 0.1%.
A short walk from the zocalo is the gorgeous cathedral of Oaxaca.
Beautiful vignettes of colonial architecture, color and character at every turn. I really, really love this city.
A piñata? Unsure. Beautiful, though.
This blind man played music. We did ask his permission to take a photo — it’d be rather tasteless not to.
Just your average street decorations:
Mercado Benito Juárez is the most-go indoor market in Oaxaca City. Expect to find everything, including some really weird foods like maggots, grasshoppers and lots of meat. The place was absolutely filled with smoke. Awesome.
The markets go on on the streets, with beautiful little bits of art and culture whichever way you go. We purchased a few skulls to safety-wire to the bikes. Unfortunately mine only made it a few miles before it shattered.
As we walked back to the hotel, we reveled in the bustle and warmth of this city.
Stu noticed some locals having a very hard time getting a lug nut loose on their car, so we helped out. By ‘we helped out’ I mean that I took photos while Stu did the hard work:
Content with food and sightseeing in the city we rode the bikes up to Monte Alban, the Aztec fortress. The views got staggering:
… and unfortunately that’s where it ended. Monte Alban closed very early, so we weren’t allowed entry. We peeked at it from afar and walked around the old trails up on the mountain. It’s a beautiful hill, and being up there makes it easy to understand why they fortified it so long ago. It has a commanding position overlooking the entire valley, with all its hillsides easily in view. Thick shrubs make it hard to get through the vegetation unless you follow certain routes.
Disappointed, we headed back down and debated whether or not we should stay in this magical city for just another night.
How could we not. Chocolate, magic, mezcal and superheroes filled the city as the sun went down. Adventure could wait a day.
As I was packing up the bike to leave the magical city of Oaxaca, I started to wonder what lay ahead.
Mexico has been a particularly excellent country to travel through. The sheer variety of it is mind-blowing. This would be our first return to one of its coastlines since we went ashore in Mazatlan after our ride through Baja. With the temperatures picking up in Oaxaca, the ocean did sound appealing.
There was a KTM 1190 Adventure in the lot at our hotel, Hotel Paris (fine spot, by the way — and nice secure parking!) in Oaxaca. Stu’s KTM cravings continue to intensify.
After a bit of looping around town to find gas we drove through some very flat and empty terrain before starting the ascent of the mountains the separate Oaxaca and the ocean. Today’s ride would be exceptionally twisty and fun and see a the weather change rapidly and frequently.
As the first turns and hills appeared it was time to try and put on a podcast to listen to while carving turns.
Not a bad view from here. People build some beautiful homes out here, with little farms and gardens in the loamy fertile soil.
It was very hot out, so the best thing we reckoned we could do was to move quickly to ensure adequate air flow. That does mean you have to really hit those corners hard, but I suppose there is just no other choice. We had to do it, officer, you know how warm it is today!
But as we gained altitude it started looking like some clouds were meeting right on top of the mountain range that we were crossing.
And indeed, not just the temperature dropped: we saw some rain, which was the first time on this trip we’d been caught in it.
We sought a bit of food so we could let the rather violent rain pass. This was… possibly the worst food we’d had in Mexico yet, and perhaps one of the worst meals of my life. I am assuming villagers here eat at home, not at the street-side restaurant.
Look at that, the rain has passed!
Out from our parking spot we could see a seemingly steaming forest, a bizarre and beautiful play of earth and air as wisps of cloud ran its tendrils through the woods like a million ghostly white hands.
These are the kind of views that are like music to your eyes. Beautiful, classical music, with a range of complex layers and indescribably beautiful textures that a camera or microphone really can’t capture well.
Stu was also very impressed. And wet. Impressed and wet.
As we continued, we basically started riding in the clouds themselves, which still had plenty of moisture to go around. We rode through some sheets of rain, wet fog/cloud, and the roads were slippery as hell. Heidenau K60 tires are great for a lot of things but the grip in the wet sucks sometimes.
I believe me taking these exceptionally bad photos with my camera is what eventually led to water getting into the viewfinder. Oops. Well, they should’ve sealed it a bit better.
After about an hour of relative cold and rain we cleared a bend and it was suddenly beautiful out. We truly just rode out of the clouds, on the edge of the downward slope that would lead us toward the coast.
A short lesson in Spanish signage:
‘Curva Peligrosa’ means ‘fun turn’. The more you know! Speaking of signage, there was a massive surplus of curve indicator signs in Oaxaca, apparently, because they absolutely studded the hills in them. Almost every turn had these reflective signs showing you helpfully the the road did, in fact, turn here:
I was delighted to find another first on our trip: a proper jungle. The windward half of the mountain range receives a remarkable amount of moisture from the ocean and dumps it onto not just unsuspecting motorcyclists, but also the forests, leading to a truly lush and gorgeous forest full of palm- and banana trees and deciduous trees of all kinds. An absolute explosion in biodiversity.
This side was also quite dry, and we enjoyed being able to hit all the turns a bit faster. We did, ironically, work up quite a thirst and found this fantastic roadside family who cut and served coconuts. Highly, highly recommended:
How’s the drink, Stu?
After you finish it, you just give it to the good man and he’ll cut it up, throw in chili, lime and a few other goodies and you can eat the flesh. Delicious. Such a brilliant idea.
The twists and undulations in the road started to even out a bit, villages started appearing, and eventually we found ourselves on fairly flat ground. A massive mountain loomed behind us and the sun was rapidly sinking towards the now-sometimes-visible ocean. We crossed a bridge:
… and tried to make it for Zipolite before dark.
Zipolite was something I’d just heard about through the grapevine. I was told that despite Mexico’s somewhat conservative nature there were places where people took the laws and rules a bit less seriously, walked the beach nude, and let others do with their life what they pleased. Zipolite is one of those places, or so I was told, and I from what I heard its menagerie of crazies and eccentrics made for a very unique small beach town.
Being from San Francisco, I enjoy a good hippie beach town as much as the next guy.
We definitely rushed once we hit the coastal highway, having to ride a little bit north (boo! We should be going south!) to make it to Zipolite. A small byroad shoots off the highway after a little mixed sand/dirt/pavement trail takes you right to the famed beach town.
We got in right as the sun started kissing the horizon. I just hopped off the bike and ran to the beach. It’d been a long enough day.
The first order of things was, naturally, a dark beer, but also a quick gander at the local cuisine:
Fish, right off the boat. You can’t just pass on that.
This wonderful open-air ‘kitchen’ makes the absolute damn best fish and shrimp. I think it was the best shrimp I’ve ever had, period. That makes for one of the best and the worst meals in my life all in one day!
This was a great beginning to a stay in Zipolite that went by far too fast. We met some locals and drank the night away. We rolled our bikes into a sandy, crappy beachside hotel so we had a place to stash our stuff safely. It was also right next to a bar called ‘A Nice Place’.
It was a nice place.
Zipolite is a bunch of ramshackle structures all dotting a beach that is flanked by dramatic jagged rocks.
Around sunset, you can actually see the sun spilling through some of the eroded rocks, spilling it last bit of warm and orange light into the cove.
It’s a stunning sight, and it never gets old.
Then, as the sun starts to set and move against the horizon, it somehow feels like it lingers, as if the light that spilled in past the rocks hangs in the air like smoke.
We were so mesmerized by this that we routinely forgot about the sometimes powerful waves and nearly drowned our telephoto lens…
It’s all good, we kept it dry.
Zipolite’s a small place, so you see most people come out to watch the sun set. This couple had a beautiful moment as the last light was slowly extinguishing and giving way to a clear starry sky:
And then that was it. But a purple glow of the sun remained and we had another nice night out with some really great people we met and instantly got along with. It’s fun how easy it is to make friends as a smelly motorcycle bum.
The next morning it was time for Stu to do some work on his fork. What’s the best possible place to work on motorcycles? I’d say a sandy courtyard of a crappy beachside hostel is just the ticket.
Alright, give me your war face!
Ah, yes, this is our accommodations. The place isn’t much, a sort of driftwood-fire-hazard by the beach, but it was ours for a few nights, and it did great. The owner was a total ass to us, but I kind of love that. Who doesn’t dream of quitting everything and moving to a tiny nude beach paradise far away to heckle strangers every day?
I know I do.
Speaking of dreaming, Stu was looking dreamy so I took his portrait.
It was our third day in Zipolite already, and it was starting to become apparent that if we had any say in it, we’d probably stay around for a long time. Perhaps we should do something productive or keep traveling, I would tell myself.
And then I’d walk by our regular spot:
OK, we’ll stay just a little longer.
Zipolite’s main drag is paved (!) and has all sorts of fun little shops and restaurants. The food’s great almost anywhere and there’s tons of gluten/meat/dairy/cat/dog-free meals available everywhere. I personally eat everything, but despite their laid back attitudes in life a lot of hippie types tend to be very picky eaters.
Ah, how can you not love this place? Wandering around was a joy, with the town being so tiny. We were offered some exotic psychedelic drugs on the street at times, too — it’s not often you see a kind stranger offering to sell you some DMT. It reminded me of San Francisco a year or 10 back, where in Dolores Park you’d get offered a multitude of fun mind expanding substances if you just sat around with your friends on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
On the beach the drug of choice was alcohol, though, especially in the form of a nice chilled Pacifico. Ahh.
I took a short hike up to the ‘meditation point’ which overlooks the cove. You get to really see the remarkable texture of the jagged rocks from up close — when they’re not covered in cacti and other interesting plants, that is.
I have to admit, just the salty air and rushing waves really felt calming after what felt like such a long time riding inland.
A change of pace.
Oceans have a grounding effect on me. I’ve always lived near the ocean, and as a kid I found its sights, sounds and smells uniquely inspiring and important. There’s a saying in Dutch, that goes something like ‘to go and have the wind blow it out of you’; to have the ocean winds clear your head, and cool you down.
Oceans do that. I suppose that’s why this little meditation point was here, up on a cliff being battered by waves, up and away from the town and in a bit more wind than the cove the town hides in.
I walked back, the wind now playing a softer ballad through the little paper ribbons on the trail.
It’d be our last night in Zipolite.
I wrote a bit in my hammock and had a beer as I sorted out some thoughts. Being on the road every day is nice; you get new sights, make new friends and have adventures every day. It lets you take your mind off a lot of regular thoughts in your mind, and it helped me lift myself out of a horrible depression I plunged into after my divorce.
But you do have to take time on the trip to reflect, and think a bit. Let the thoughts intrude on your mind so you can sort some things out.
But as the light on my sandy feet turned orange, it was time to snap a few photos of the sun dipping behind the rocky outcroppings again. Stu ran out with our new friend Laura, who enjoyed photography herself:
her brother Alexander and Bregje, our other new friends had already set up a nice little beach base right outside of A Nice Place:
Where we could grab ample beverages to talk the night away and lament our having to get back on the road. Zipolite would be an easy place to ‘lose a trip’; with how cheap it is to live here, it’s tempting just to stick around for a while and see if you can work out some things in your life or write that novel you always wanted to write.
And sometimes you’re lucky enough to make wonderful friends there, as well.
With the glow of sunset vanishing we turned to the glows of a beach bonfire where old, young, hippies and locals all gathered to warm themselves, play music and dance.
Here’s to the crazy ones.
Can we talk you into putting the dates at the top of the posts -- might help us follow the year or two narrative gap?
Amazing regardless, tho!
Thanks, TD. Yeah, I'll add the dates. At the last post we just spent the night of January 6, so my next report update will have us leaving Playa Zipolite on January 7th. Should be able to catch up to the end of January, when I left the bike in Costa Rica, just about when I go back to pick it up and keep riding!
In related news, a Spanish Zipolite tourism account just 'liked' our last update on Twitter. Let's hope they don't really read every word of it
Simply outstanding! More please.
Gladly, we'll have another update ready today with our last Mexican state, Chiapas.
I just realized I left out details of an evening in Zipolite where a local came down from the mountains with dubious cloudy 'mezcal' in a coke bottle that was a bit too easy to drink. It was a long and exciting night that ended in a very faded caliform indeed. I doubt those details would be too thrilling anyway, but for now just imagine a really smashing night at A Nice Place that really closed up a few days of pure debauchery on the Oaxaca coast...
Come on, do I really have to leave Zipolite? At this point, I’d met locals that had given me a coke bottle full of cloudy (purportedly) ‘mezcal’ that I really enjoyed and we’d made friends with half the town. We never thought we’d find another town like Skagway on our Ride North, but here it was. And it was a nude beach, at that.
We had to go. Stu fired up the KLR and almost steered the KLR into a wall at speed thanks to the 1+ foot deep sand we were parked in, so I decided to spare my (dry, bah) clutch and just push my bike out to the street.
Where we loaded up the bikes in searing hit. Pro-tip: put your helmet in the shade while you do this!
All nicely packed up. We looked our old digs up and down once more and had some breakfast in town, where the local policy was clearly spelled out:
I’m not entirely sure if all the locals really adhere to this rule…
After a bit of snacking we had the hot air of the road blast the tears off our face that beaded our cheeks after tearful goodbyes… Okay, perhaps it wasn’t quite that sad, but I felt less than motivated to move on.
This is our route today. The coastal Oaxacan route 200 is super fun, twisty, offers gorgeous ocean views and plenty of great (and not so great pavement). It’s not terribly busy, either.
We pulled right up to two guys really ripping up the road on their smaller bikes and got off for a drink and made some new friends:
We gave them some stickers and patches. One of them was named ‘Galileo’. What a cool name, man.
Salina Cruz was an interesting town. Coming from a very naturopath hippie micro-beach community, we were thrust into an industrial port town where a gas refinery and trash fields around it burned in the distance. Tons of people were in and about the town, and it had a decidedly different atmosphere and feel than all of Oaxaca we’d seen so far. We found the edge of the state, and not a particularly happy slice of that edge.
The day’s ride had been hot and exhausting and after looking for camping near the water we just gave up and got a cheap hotel instead. We wanted to rest up a bit after hearing some horror stories about the road we’d do the next day, anyway.
We were planning to ride to San Cristobal de las Casas, a ‘pueblo magico’ in Chiapas, the final Mexican state. To get to Chiapas, you have to cross what’s know as the isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrowest little piece of land. As the Sierra Madre hunches down and the volcanic mountains of Chiapas and Guatemala arise to its East, wind gets channeled in from the Caribbean and blows across the isthmus at great speeds. We heard stories of toppled trucks, motorcyclists unable to stay on the road, all sorts of terrible tales of horror.
I recalled the great video from Becky (Motoventuring) where they were blown over on the road.
Well, we went on the ride and while it was windy… it was kind of a joy. Tons of windmills (quelle surprise!) and trucks on this route, but by no means the Death Winds we’d heard of. We probably got lucky, or some aspect of it might have also been the penchant for drama people have. We’ve heard a lot of horror stories and have yet to find a road or place that was quite as bad as people said!
Hey Stu, what do you think—
Yeah, he’s cool with it.
After the flat terrain of the isthmus, the mountains pick up again. Roads snake up a set of rolling hills which rapidly turn to scenic mountains and before you know it, this gorgeous state of Oaxaca is no more:
This is it, the last state of Mexico! We can’t believe it. Despite having seen so many parts of it, we were still craving more. Every part of this country is a delight.
And would you know it, Chiapas would prove to be no different. Look at this dramatic, gorgeous landscape. Hot, but gorgeous.
The road into Chiapas, towards San Cristobal de las Casas, is stunning. Probably in my top 5 rides of all of Mexico. This unreal, golden set of dry hill vegetation turns to greener and more colorful varieties of scenery before fading right back into dryness and golden hues again. A feast for your eyes — and the road, a feast for the soul.
And there’s quite a bit of road to cover! We entered the hills near San Pedro Tapanatepec (what a mouthful), to cross the highlands of Chiapas and then make a blast for the hills near Tuxtla Gutiérrez and hopefully ride into San Cristobal by sundown.
The flatlands were smoky. We rode through thick smoke for a good 30 minutes until we ran into the source: burning fields. We were absolutely starving but decided to push through this to save our own lungs, and found a mariscos (seafood, yep, perhaps a bad idea) out here in the highlands to chow down on. Surprisingly good!
In Tuxtla Gutiérrez we gassed up and found a Minecraft bike (?). We debated if we wanted to check out the town but it seemed truly dreadful to us, and we had a bit of sunlight left.
Boy, am I glad we drove up the mountain to San Cristobal.
As we ascended through hills and mountains outside of Tuxtla, we rode through our first small Mayan villages. Unlike Aztec culture at large, Mayans continue to live to this day, still cultivating corn at high altitudes, still speaking their Mayan language and observing a lot of its customs. The dwellings, while somewhat modern, were still dotted on the ridges of mountains by the roadside and were still surrounded by stalks of corn and other traditional crops.
The people on the side of the road looked like they could’ve been here many centuries ago. It was a powerful reminder of just how strong Chiapas’ native identity and culture is to this day — something that is the source of many conflicts with the Mexican federal government.
There are the hills they live in, and the hills they have lived in for generations upon generations. And we’re just lucky enough to see them as they are in this small snapshot of time, bathed in golden glows of a setting sun.
I suspect the Spanish had something more tangible in mind when they were out here looking for the gold of the natives, but this can’t have been a bad consolation prize. Sunsets in this high country are magical, and the warm light played with the cornstalks in a beautiful fiery way.
Ah, how can I keep going? I have to stop and take photos. I have to keep moving, too, as we hate riding in the dark in unknown places and on mountains without great visibility and into a town we’d never been in… but, the scenery. Just look at it:
I’d stop to take some photos, and Stu would overtake me. I’d keep riding for a bit, and fly by Stu on the side of the road, taking photos. The process would repeat so often that eventually I was trained to listen to that big pig of a thumper’s roar echoing of the mountainside and make sure I had my camera ready to snap him rolling by:
And with that purple glow, the sun had been laid to rest. Only the light from our own headlights poured over this twisty road now, the last few dozen miles to San Cristobal, no doubt scenic but it scenery and views now invisible to us.
It’d been a solid ride, and we checked into the Rossco Backpacker Hostel, which we were told gives a free night to bikers. We were not just warmly welcomed, but for the same price they gave us a full room to enjoy in the back and a beautiful spot in the courtyard to park the bikes. Tomorrow, we’d set off to explore San Cristobal and make plans for Chiapas and what lay beyond the Mexican border.
But first, beers, food, and a bit of rest from our taming of the isthmus and chasing up the Mayan trail.
I got some extra photos from Stuart! It'd be a lot of work to weave them into the last updates so I'll just post them like this and integrate the rest into our new reports...
Supplemental pics from Stuart!
Our visit to Playa Zipolite:
Our beautiful hostel in Zipolite, cough
This was the wonderful gentlemen with the dubious mezcal:
Riding the beautiful twisty, dry roads to Salina Cruz
The apocalyptic landscapes of Salina Cruz:
Isthmus of Tehuantepec — on the way to Chiapas!
A friendly roadblock guard in Oaxaca, right before we entered Chiapas:
Massive burns in Chiapas on the dry fields.
Chiapas’ natives in their native garb.
Gorgeous landscapes outside San Cristobal de las Casas:
Quiet morning streets of San Cristobal:
More lively streets. This town is beautiful, and has so much character.
Late night socializing with our newfound friends at the Rossco backpacker hostel. Cigars, Indio and Bohemia!
Might as well do a few portraits!
And give out some stickers!
Almost put a sticker on the dog.
San Cristóbal is a special place. That isn’t just because it’s a ‘pueblo magico’, or ‘magical town’, but because it is in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s most unique states. Chiapas is a humid, tropical state covered in jungles that house various well known and yet-to-be-discovered Mayan ruins like Palenque, Bonampak and Toniná.
As I mentioned in my last post, all that culture is still very much here. It’s here in the people, in the tiny villages, and it’s very much here in San Cristobál. Like Oaxaca City, it felt alive with the throbbing pulse of a local culture. Chiapas’ indigenous culture has been clashing with the Mexican government for quite some time, and you don’t have to look far to see signs of that.
There’s marks of the Zapatista (a left-wing, indigenous-rights socialist group) throughout, and there were a lot of words of roadblocks on the roads going out of town.
You also see a lot of people in their native garb.
We were in the heart of the city, in the very pleasant Rossco Hostel. The place has a really quaint charm to it, with its lush courtyard (where we stored the bikes) and friendly house dogs. Being a backpacker hostel, it also has its fair share of colorful characters moving about, and we explored the town a bit with some of them.
I had to do a few maintenance things: I needed a new key for my bike panniers, so I went to ask around town to find someone who could make keys. I was pointed towards a crafty young boy who told me it’d be the equivalent of about half a dollar and to come back in about an hour.
I came back to get this key:
Yep, it was slowly and painstakingly etched by hand. No machines here, just actual handiwork. It works like a charm. Just amazing.
In bike maintenance, since we’ve been in such hot and humid climates I couldn’t help but notice the HP2 running rather hot. Hot, in this case, means ‘at the notch’, which is the top of the engine temperature dash.
I’d gotten several suggestions on the HP2 thread on ADVRider but the most helpful one was just to perhaps cut off part of the front fender that was blocking the airflow to the oil cooler altogether. Wouldn’t you know it, it cooled down the bike quite a bit.
An interesting situation arose for me: I have to meet my girlfriend in Costa Rica in about 11 days. We’d had plans to meet up for some time, but she’d finally nabbed a ticket out of Chile where she was doing a trip and the date was now final. That gave me a bit (a lot) less time than I wanted to check out Guatemala, but at least Stu could take his time there.
Some great sights still awaited us: the ruins of Palenque and the beautiful sights of the rest of Chiapas were tempting, but we had very consistent and reliable reports of entirely shuttered roads and violent protest with several tourists gone missing in the days before, so we made the decision to head for the border the next day. Fortunately, Guatemala would offer excellent riding, Mayan ruins and a slightly lower chance of violent mobs.
So with that, we loaded up our bikes in the courtyard, tossed out a half HP2 fender, slapped some Mexico stickers on the panniers and headed for the border.
Our late start combined with roadworks and roadblocks led to a 90 km ride — which was supposed to take about 2 hours — becoming a 5 hour affair. We had only traveled about 90 km south of San Cristobal de las Casas when we hit the town of Comitan at nightfall with angry clouds boiling in the sky. Forecasts said downpours, and we’re fairly close to the border, so we stopped.
Not wanting to attempt the border crossing at night, we decided to stay one last night in Mexico here.
A beautiful town.
I love this zippy (unofficial) yellow police motorcycle.
Yeah, those clouds are bad news.
The next day we rolled through the hotel (this never gets old), off the curb and into the streets of Comitan and bid Mexico adieu.
It’s a pretty sort of roll downhill towards the border crossing at Ciudad Cuahtemoc / La Mesilla.
Ah, border crossings.
In Central America, you should budget time. It’s a currency they are generous with, so your budget should be substantial. In the case of border crossings, I usually budget about a day. If we get a border crossing done in less than a day, that’s pure profit as far as time goes. Don’t go into it expecting things to go well, fast, efficient, or in any way normally. That way you’re much less likely to be disappointed.
The Mexico-Guatemala border isn’t half bad.
When we entered Mexico, we put down a deposit when we got our ‘temporary vehicle import permit’ or TVIP. There’s more names for this particular document, but let’s refer to it as the ‘TVIP’ in our posts about border crossings. Much like you get a temporary visa upon arrival that lets you stay in the country for a few months, your vehicle gets to be in a country for a bit by the grace of this piece of paper.
When you enter Cuidad Cuahtemoc, the first order of business is to get your vehicle checked out of the country, and then yourself checked out.
This is the spot for that. There’s a big awning that you cannot park under, so bring some sunblock. Then be prepared to be told to go get copies of documents. You can’t do these in advance: they’ll be stamped documents and of course there’s only one spot in town that does copies at somewhat-extortionate rates. It’s also up here, on the hill behind the adauana offices:
Oh well. We went up to get copies (and water, it’s in a convenience store, hooray!) when a giant bus full of smelly backpackers (not as smelly as us, mind you) arrived. Oh no! The last thing you want is to be stuck behind a 150+ people who need their papers processed.
Fortunately they gave us priority and they refunded our deposit on the vehicle, stamped out the paperwork and got us stamped out of Mexico.
Currency changers walk around here and can give you a decent exchange rate, provided you negotiate a bit. You’ll need local currency at the border and unless you collect international bills you’re better off exchanging whatever cash you have left at a decent rate. Just look up what the exchange rate is on Google and show it to the money changer. They’ll counter at something and if you’re happy with it, go exchange your cash and rejoice in your newfound local wealth.
There’s a little road between Ciudad Cuahtemoc and the actual border between Mexico and Guatemala, and on that exact border line is where you’ll find the customs and immigrations of Guatemala. This is what’s called a ‘no man’s land’.
Right before you get to it, there’s a jaw-dropping lookout of the rolling hills of pure Mayan country.
This is the splendor that the once-mighty Mayan empire ruled over. Images don’t do it justice. The landscapes and skies were vast, with god-rays shooting between scattered clouds over mountains that dramatically erupted from the fertile valley. The very mountains themselves felt like resting gods, perhaps nearly forgotten, their powers slowly diminished over time until they went to rest here, only to be overgrown in thick jungle.
Or perhaps it was this photobombing butterfly that was the reincarnation of the native gods.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, I’d lost Stu, who had left to go to the border already. Time to catch up! Stop here for the initial customs paperwork (passport stamps!)…
Then pull up for the mandatory vehicle import permit.
This little office is the one you want, and they’ll actually check your VIN! We were surprised at how diligent they did their work. No attempts at overcharging, we got the regular 160 quetzals for the vehicle permit and 40 for the mandatory fumigation of the vehicle.
Stu’s doing the work of getting the KLR legal in Guatemala.
And a hose-down with (likely not really effective) fumigation chemicals.
Interestingly La Mesilla, the border town, really grew an entire little ecosystem around the border. Things are no doubt more and less expensive on both sides, and thrifty people have set up tons of shops with almost everything imaginable on both sides, which grew to this bustling little ramshackle metropolis:
Little taxis shuttle people back and forth, annoying ‘helpers’ dot the area, and tons of merchandise is moved in trucks.
The border crossing didn’t take more than an hour or so and we got on the road. Not having a clear goal for the day, we rode to Huehuetenango, the closest city that should have a bank for getting some currency and perhaps a good spot to grab some food.
The ride there was pure bliss. Beautiful, twisty mountain roads flanked by epic cliffs and mountains. The road snakes through the valley following a river that splits off somewhere near Colotenango, leaving you to the two-lane ‘highway’ 7W to Huehuetenango. We got in sometime after nightfall.
It’s not a very fantastic town. In Huehuetenango, we looked around to find a kind of nice local’s spot, but really only found some dubious truckstop kind of joints. At the end of the night we did manage to find some Americans that lived in Huehuetenango that were here for ‘mission work’.
I wonder what kind of mission it was?
I think their mission might have been drinking. What a coincidence, that’s ours too!
After a night of chatting with their super friendly community and exchanging tales of travel we grabbed some roadside food to get a true local flavor:
After which we hit the hay. There was a whole new country ahead of us just waiting to be explored.
FYI. I am really enjoying your photos and monologue. A little different from the norm. Keep it coming as there are lots of us following I am sure!
So wonderful to hear SoosCreek! Thank you!
Outstanding photos and story!
I am really enjoying the images and details of your travel. The colors are so vivid and the people's faces tell wonderful stories of lives well lived. The photo of the three women below is stunning and the pride in their faces shows a deep connection to their ancestry and clothing. I have a friend who lived with native peoples from this area and learned and studied their backstrap looms. She tells stories of how each village had their own colors and patterns. The tassels would fly in the air when they danced and it was a beautiful image. Thank you for sharing.
Guatemala is dangerous. Not in the traditional meaning of ‘danger’, which is the type of danger you get warned of from sheltered people that assume anything 100 miles south of where they’ve lived is a shady place nobody should ever go; no, Guatemala is dangerous because it swallows people whole.
Particularly people like us.
You see, if you’re a traveler, you might come through a country like Guatemala with plans for an epic trip North or South of its borders. But you’ll find the kindest people you’ve ever met, vast jungles and epic volcanoes, dramatic landscapes dotted with ancient temples, fascinating cultures and exotic animals — all accessible at an incredibly low price. Guatemala is beautiful, kind, diverse, and incredibly cheap. Guatemala is dangerous because trips end here. People just forget to leave.
Today we were going to a spot that eats a lot of people whole in Guatemala, Lago Atitlan (English: Lake Atitlan).
First, it was time to wake up Stu:
We had a quick breakfast and went out on the road. Would you look at that, a non-Pemex gas station! Mexico has a nationalized gas company, so you really only see one ‘brand’ of service station. It’d been almost three months since we’d seen a new gas station brand. Ola Puma:
As a bonus, this nondescript gas station overlooks a valley dotted with gorgeous, dramatic volcanoes. They seem to spring forth out of the Earth in Guatemala like mushrooms. Just tons of them around every turn. A fascinating landscape.
Traffic situations, roads and general traffic rules are even more relaxed / nonexistent in Guatemala compared to Mexico.
It was already noticeable riding down further South in Mexico that people started being a bit more ‘loose’ with the rules of the road, maintenance of roads or even paving of roads, and in Guatemala it reaches its logical conclusion:
When they’re not running you off the road or generally driving like a malicious idiot, these ‘chicken buses’ are beautiful to look at:
After the more dodgy intersections and traffic situations of Guatemala, we had a stretch of beautifully paved and fast highway, that led is into some nice high mountains.
That little dot is Stu, cheerfully flying along.
We soon had to turn off to get to the lake, though. Clouds built on the ridges of mountains and volcanoes ahead of us as we dipped off large highways into smaller byways, from larger villages into smaller pueblos…
Seeing more and more people in their native dress, as the villages got sparser and smaller.
Eventually, it was just countryside we were riding through. Our reading of maps wasn’t the most brilliant, so we had a small but fun detour through the scenic countryside of the mountain ridge that surrounds Lago Atitlan.
At times this little dirt road was little more than some two track road, and with the wet fog it all got a bit muddy, too. Pretty fun, but we were getting properly lost and it was time to see if we could find a way out and to the lake we’d been promised.
We ended up getting some help from a fellow who led us the right way. Turns out there was some pavement hiding in these mountains!
We finally found the edge of the clouds…
A few more miles of fun, fun dirt road…
And here it was, in view now, Lago Atitlan.
I didn’t really take photos of the way down as it is basically a fantastic set of hairpin turns on gravel and sand that didn’t really allow for a lot of one-handed shooting, but I really regret that I didn’t pull of somewhere to figure out a way to get a shot. We were already dodging chicken buses and other traffic on the road, so there wasn’t really a good way to snap a photo, but let this map serve as a general indication:
Oodles of noodly fun.
A short road takes you from the bottom of this hairpin salad to San Pablo La Laguna, where you’ll get your first lake-level views of the massive volcanoes that define the perimeter of the lake.
We rode on to San Pedro La Laguna, rather famous for its eccentric hippie inhabitants and wonderful views.
While the entire lake and its surrounding volcanoes (3 in total, one rather big one) were covered in clouds, light filtered through it like a lamp shining through milk. It was spectacular to see.
Lake Atitlan is over 700 feet deep, and the result of a massive eruption some 80,000 years ago. The volcanoes that dot the rim of the caldera, large as they may seem, are an order of magnitude or two smaller than the one that blew up to form this lake. As the years went by, it filed with water, and it now feeds two rivers that flow downstream from the massive reservoir. Precipitation fills it constantly, keeping it full of water.
It’s known as one of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in the world.
I’d agree, even when it’s cloudy out.
The towns on its rim are accessible by road, with some of the smaller ones only accessible by boat. Tons of Mayan culture runs through the towns, in everything from customs to food and architecture. It’s a remarkable place.
For visitors, it’s an easygoing place.
For everyone, life revolves around the lake.
Well, perhaps some more than others.
Strolling the streets you find animals, small backyard farms, coffee being dried…
And, inexplicably, a Dutch evangelical community? I’d recommend against learning Dutch, it’d be more useful to learn English. And that’s coming from a Dutch guy.
Classic shrines are found throughout, and the layout of the city seems organic and spontaneously grown rather than planned. It forms beautiful little parks, spins tiny streets and alleys around trees and geological features, and always dips down into the waters of the lake.
Please keep your giant cock jokes to yourself, folks.
The actual ‘downtown’ area of San Pedro, which you’ll visit if you want to get out some cash or some such, is much more of a typical Guatemalan town, with chicken buses and traffic craziness in spades:
But you won’t spend too much time here. This is where you wander:
And where you find Life, nestled on the slopes of a volcano, seemingly plunging into what is an even bigger volcano crater. A meeting of fire and water with steaming mountains all around.
And as the sun started rolling behind the sharp ridges of the rim the fire lit the steam alight with beautiful fire.
Another victory of the fire over the water.
It’s not hard to see why people get lost here. Or perhaps, why some try to get lost in this particular place only to make attempts at finding themselves.
We, as humans, travel and change our lives to seek that very vague thing. It doesn’t matter if you are home or on the road, or if you feel satisfied or lost in life. The greatest developments in my life I’ve experienced were times when I truly felt lost, alienated from what I knew, and it forced me to grow.
It seems like you seek something in those moments: a sense of balance, perhaps. A grounding influence. Something that makes you feel like yourself again.
I truly felt that way when we rode up to Alaska, in a strange state where my entire life seemed uncertain. The future, entirely vague. My mind muddled and feeling disconnected with everything, including myself. In Atitlan, I noticed it in other travelers, too; some perhaps more lost than others.
We spent the evening meeting with other travelers or locals who’d gotten stuck here a long time ago. Eaten by the giant caldera, willingly trapped on the slopes of a volcano.
It’s a stereotype, but in the end, I related to the lost ones so strongly. And I hope they found themselves — or the thing they were looking for.
A very captivating read, to say the least. Absolutely stunning pics! More, more, more!