La Paz – Guadalajara: Mainland Meyheeko

Kilometres: About 8500
Movie nights in the tent: 7 or 8

Deaths wished upon roosters late at night: several hundred
Regretful Quintens after an afternoon at the cockfights: 1

As the days went by, La Paz began filling with cyclists. For those of us heading deeper into Mexico, the marinas promised the chance of catching a free ride on a yacht across to the mainland but with each day more cyclists arrived than left. Every morning we would congregate down at the marina to catch up, compare notes on the best hamburger deal in town and attempt a bit of shmoozing with the mix of sea dogs, yuppies and outright lunatics who populate such a place.

It wasn’t so bad. After we left Eduardo’s place we stayed with Tuly and her daughters Geysa, Bertha and Genesis, who happens to be a chef. It seems that when Genesis starts cooking, she finds it almost impossible to stop. After a week in town our cyclist’s Hunger had all but completely disappeared, but the woman was on a mission to fatten us up. We ate something like four cakes in one week.

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Genesis, Robbie, Bertha, Tommy, Geysa and I

Through some of these other cyclists we were invited to take part in a big Sunday ride, which was pretty fun, and also to play some bike polo. A bunch of guys gather each Friday night in the Home Depot car park, and for one evening teams consisted of a mix of local hipsters on fixies and dirty tourists on heavy, ungainly touring bikes. I should modestly add that I scored three goals in my first ever game.

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Sunday ride in La Paz.

Robbie and I aren’t the best at being social at times, but give Tommy five minutes with anyone – even someone as odious as Philip Ruddock, I’ll wager – and he’ll come out with a new friend. It was him who tipped us off about a South African named Julia who was willing to give lifts to as many cyclists as she could fit aboard her trimaran, the Fast Alley. We spent an afternoon helping her ready her boat and then headed back for a farewell dinner that Genesis was concocting. We left our bags aboard and she asked that we be back by midnight.

At 10pm we rolled into the marina with Coco, a Frenchman who had also secured himself a spot on the Fast Alley, to find an empty space where the boat had been. According to the security guard at the marina she’d only left half an hour before.

“Easy come, easy go,” said Robbie. At least she’d left our bags on the dock, which in itself would’ve taken a good 20 minutes to unload. What would’ve happened if we’d been a little earlier and caught her in the act? We resigned ourselves to spending $100 on ferry tickets to Mazatlan.

Coco wasn’t so forgiving, and he also had Julia’s email address. He sent us a copy of an email he wrote urging her, among other things, to “please drown yourself carefully into the sea.”

Missing our ride on the ferry was something of a blessing in the end, because it allowed us to take part in possibly one of the most ridiculous activities La Paz has to offer. You ride down to the malecon, La Paz’s beachfront esplanade, and talk to a bloke called Hector. You agree on a price and within 15 minutes you’re on a boat that’s being piloted by some 21-year-old who doesn’t know how to swim. He takes you across the bay and eases back on the throttle somewhere offshore from a lonely-looking luxury resort. It’s about six metres down to the sandy bottom and the water is clear. As you pull on flippers and a snorkel, the captain points out a dark splodge in the water. It’s hard to discern any details from above the water’s surface but it suffices to say that it’s an enormous splodge. The susceptible-to-drowning captain then accelerates on ahead and peers at the water while you keep your eyes on him. Then he’s yelling “Salta salta salta!” and you’re diving off the boat like paratroopers flinging themselves from a plane and the water is surprisingly warm and not as clear as you first thought and you start to wonder where it is. Five seconds feel like ten minutes and then from some unexpected corner of your field of vision – say, bottom right – this humongous shape appears and the sand disappears and all you can see is fins and white spots and then you’re ducking to avoid the tail flitting and slicing through the water. We repeated this process four times and every single time it appeared, I heard the Inception noise. You know the one:

So once the whale shark passes by – for that is what it is – you realise that the whole reason you’re going to give Hector $20 when you get back to the beach is to swim with these things, so you kick your flippers and try to catch up with it. The first time I almost didn’t do this. I was too busy at the surface spitting salt water and shouting expletives at nobody in particular. With its rows of fins and pointed, arched tale, the whale shark looks disconcertingly sharky from behind. From the front, it’s wide-set eyes and agape mouth match its benign nature, and it endures the thrashing limbs of the humans and the nuzzling of smaller fish with an admirable dignity. If I was a whale shark, I’d probably go out of my way to swallow a human every once in a while to make them leave me alone.

You swim alongside the great fish for several minutes until the lazy sway of its tail outpaces your frantic kicks or it decides to dive down out of sight, and then you surface and look for the boat. “It was awesome?” asks the captain who would drown if you pushed him overboard. He doesn’t sound interested. Robbie and Tommy had been busy inspecting the types of fish that swam with the whale shark, noting details of its spots, certain scars it had and the way it propelled itself through the water. And while they compared notes as we sat on the boat I sat and tried to wrap my feeble brain around what the hell had just happened. The fourth and last whale shark we swam with was about 7 metres long. When I looked into its button eye, swimming above and trying to outpace the dorsal fin that was gaining on me from behind, I knew fear. I know it was the wrong thing to be feeling right then and I offer no explanation. I came up and sat in the water for a moment, and when Robbie popped up 20 metres further ahead he asked if everything was OK.

“Yeah. I’m done,” I replied and he told me later that I was smiling like a lunatic when I said it.

The next day we rode out of La Paz and said an all-too-brief goodbye to Tommy the Washingtonian, who’d been our companion for the six weeks or so since Christmas. He’s probably still on a beach someplace on Baja’s southern tip, sipping mezcalito and swimming ludicrous distances out to islands for the fun of it.

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So long Tommy

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Whale-watching from the ferry.

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Forgoing the cabins full of drunk truckers for a night on the deck.

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First look at mainland Mexico.

Mazatlan’s air tasted sweet after so long sucking on Baja dust and dry desert wind. Warm Showers and Couch Surfing deserted us and we stayed in a hostel for the first time on this trip. We met all the usual characters and a few interesting ones as well, but as we rode out of town a few days later I couldn’t help thinking I had no idea what Mazatlan was really like.

In the hostel we met Joff, an Englishman who is riding a penny farthing around the world… for the second time. He wears a replica helmet from the imperial British army and is exactly as chipper, good-humoured and hardy as you’d expect him to be.

Now, until Mazatlan Joff was a bit like the white whale to my Captain Ahab. It was months ago that I first saw him from a bike path heading east out of Las Vegas. He was on a nearby highway heading in the opposite direction, and he responded to my hoots with a gentlemanly wave. For weeks afterward all I heard from Arizonans and Californians was how they’d seen this bloke on a penny farthing. “Now that is an adventure,” they’d say. In Jacumba, California I slept in Walker’s RV just a day after Joff had slept in the same place, and Walker showed me his video diaries on YouTube. In Baja people showed us photos and told stories of the Englishman on the penny farthing. If he’s reading this, he’s probably a little creeped out by now.

We ended up riding out of Mazatlan with him and sharing a beer to commemorate Robbie’s 2000th kilometre, and it was like riding with a celebrity. People pointed, shouted and stared and cars pulled over to take photos. On the uphills Robbie and I would simply click into a bigger chain ring, but Joff has only one gear, which is his front wheel. He has to push hard to keep himself going on even the slightest of inclines. On steep descents he simply lifts his legs over the handlebars and lets the pedals spin.

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The bike that’s on it’s second round-the-world trip.

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And the man himself astride it.

So I’ve gone and written 1600 words or so that barely cover a single kilometre on the road, and as we rode out of Mazatlan it sure felt like ages since we’d really ridden anywhere. East of town the jungle floor goes vertical, climbing up a range of mountains known as “El Espinazo del Diablo” – The Devil’s Spine. It took two days to climb it, through jungle swathed in vines and the odd cactus lost and far from home, until the creepers gave way to pine forest. We spent a third day riding along the spine, with cliffs shooting out of sight above us or falling away into a void below, or both at the same time. It’s a very special place to ride a bicycle.

Get ready for a whole bunch of Robbie photos!

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Robbie pees.

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Robbie climbs

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Robbie crosses the Tropic of Cancer.

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Robbie gets ready for lunch.

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Robbie sweats.

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Robbie leans.

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Robbie looks.

As of two years ago there are now two roads that negotiate the Devil’s Spine and provide passage to Durango, 250 kilometres to the north-east. The new toll road boasts an impressive series of tunnels and suspension bridges, and bores straight through the mountains. The older road winds over and along the range, stringing together a series of villages. People in the region seem proud of a certain suspension bridge on the toll road that’s supposed to be extremely impressive, but the closest we got to it was the spot from which I took this picture:

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Camping spots are thinly spread along the Devil’s Spine, and we’ve learned to be picky about the villages we choose to sleep in so as to avoid the nightly communiques of dogs, donkeys and worst of all, roosters. For those of us who grew up in suburbia, the image of a cock crowing to welcome the sunrise and wake the cheerful old farmer each morning is something we know well from folklore and popular culture. This is a lie. The reality is that the cock has been bellowing all night (and all day, for that matter) to the 200 other cocks in the village, and they back at him, and the farmer has waited for the first light of day to go outside and save his prize bird from the wrath of any traumatised cycle tourists or light sleepers within a 20 kilometre radius.

The attention of children, too, has become something we’ve had to take into consideration. In Chirimoyo a classroom’s worth of kids came out to silently watch us cook and eat dinner, long after our patience and energy to maintain conversation ran out. “See you in the morning for breakfast!” they chirped when they finally left and sure enough, there they were at 7am to watch us eat porridge. In Concordia we slept beside a baseball pitch and in the morning young Jesus and Alejandro ended up being late for school after spending most of the morning helping to disassemble our tents and frothing over every individual piece of gear we own.

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Jesus and Alejandro from Concordia. Jesus is sporting his new riding glasses, formerly Robbie’s.

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Fumbles can be costly in Chirimoyo

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Chirimoyo’s plaza. Scores high for comfort and especially views on the sleeping scale, but has been blacklisted due to its dense concentration of and proximity to roosters.

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Fluffy burrito

Once we came down off the Devil’s Spine, we had a day and a bit of chilly pine forests and scruffy lumber towns. It looked a little like New South Wales’ New England, where I spent my high school years.

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Durango was the first of many pretty colonial cities we’ve found in Mexico’s interior. The weather turned sour and our couchsurfing host Liz and her family’s hospitality was so good we stayed for a few days longer than planned. One evening we rode out to a town called Chupaderos, which seems like a pretty standard central Mexican village until you find a street with a gallows on the corner, a saloon, a workshop, an old-timey bank and a giant hotel that’s nothing but a painted wooden facade with trees growing behind. What’s more, there are now people living and running businesses in some of these structures. A woman sells snacks from a stall outside the Hotel and another is running a beer shop out of the Saloon. We also spent a couple of hours at the Sunday cockfights, which you can read about here. This out here is John Wayne country, and it’s easy to see why.

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Riding into Chupaderos

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The western theme continued after Durango when we spent a night in the Sierra de los Organos, a series of strange rock formations that featured in a bunch of old westerns from both the U.S. and Mexico. We had a movie night that night and watched a John Wayne flick called The War Wagon, which contained scenes from Chupaderos, the Sierra de los Organos and an uncomfortable dose of racism:

This is how it looked when we visited:

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The landscape turned to rolling brown hills and farmland, and pretty much stayed that way for the next week and a bit almost all the way to Guadalajara.

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They don’t always have the right equipment in Mexico, but they always find a way to make it work. I never really thought about using a bike pump on a car tyre before.

Along the way we stopped in Zacatecas and Aguascalientes – agreeable cities with pretty central districts and excellent couchsurfing hosts. Thanks Andrea and Saul!

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Zacatecas from above.

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This billiards hall was blasting ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” when I took this photo.

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Zacatecas has, among a lot of other cool things, a mask museum. Allow me a little indulgence here:

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“I am the one who knocks!”

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The devil room

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More racism.

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The Bee Gees got a fourth member

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Mask-ception!

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Robbie: “This is how hungry I feel all the time.”

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Puppet matadors.

It only took two days to get from Zacatecas to Aguascalientes, and we camped overnight in this canyon by a pretty filthy dam:

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Plenty of fun riding though!

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Aguascalientes apparently has the highest standard of living in Mexico, and I believe it. In addition to loads of bicycles, manageable traffic and a pretty, uncrowded centre, there are more bars there than I’ve probably seen in the rest of the country put together. Robbie went out solo one evening looking for nothing more than a place to dance, and we ended the night belligerently screaming for tacos while Robbie tried to ensure a guy whose name I don’t remember didn’t crash as he drove us home.

Aguascalientes is also the geographic centre of Mexico, apparently. There’s a nice plaza and a flag to mark the exact spot:

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It took over two months to get this far in.

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She gave us chili beef and stuffed chillies and mole and I’ll love her forever.

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Heheh.

More of the same landscape of brown, treeless hills followed and, to put it mildly, I’m looking forward to a change of scenery.

A pattern emerged as we neared Guadalajara. We would ride until around 12:30, at which point we’d find ourselves in the plaza of yet another charming old colonial town. We’d eat some lunch, drink ourselves an horchata and a lemonade respectively, and spend the hottest hours of the day watching the comings and goings of the old men in cowboy hats, glamourous old ladies in flowing dresses (plenty of them in Cuquio, for some reason), working men on their way to some job or another and the teen parents and their toddlers who shrieked as they chased pigeons.

Once the temperature became tolerable once more we’d ride until the sun got to about three or four thumb widths from the horizon, at which point it’s time to play “where are we going to sleep tonight?” One highlight was in Yahualica de Gonzalez Gallo (an all round winner: cool name, friendly people and a pretty centre), where the bulldog-like police constable and his machine gun-toting associate came all the way up to a park by a dam outside town to tell us that yes, we could camp right there on the spongy soft grass if we so wished.

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Robbie’s 3000th kilometre beer with an 82-year-old bloke named Jesus.

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In Cuquio

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The scenery finally changed just outside Guadalajara, the third-biggest city in Mexico and one of the biggest I’ve been in on this trip so far. We descended 18 kilometres deep into a canyon and camped by a river. Then then next morning we climbed out the other side and, well, here we are in Guadalajara.

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“Where are we going to sleep tonight?”

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The one half-decent photo I’ve taken so far in Guadalajara.

There are obviously a lot of things I don’t always talk about enough on this blog, and kindness is one of them. We are the undeserving recipients of all sorts of kindness on a daily basis, from the lawyer who gave us 500 pesos in a coffee shop (thanks Julian!) to the man who rode several kilometres out of Pabellon Hidalgo with us to ensure we didn’t get lost. There was the cycling father-son duo who found us a place to sleep in Vicente Guerrero (thanks Gabriel and Isaac!) and the man who let us camp behind his restaurant outside El Salto (look out for your postcard, Cesar!). That’s not even close to an exhaustive list, and to go through each and every act of kindness we’ve received on the road in this country would be so long as to make for bad reading.

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Gabriel and Isaac from Vicente Guerrero

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Cesar in his restaurant at Santa Isabel near El Salto, Durango.

So we’re only three weeks or so away from our little duo doubling to a quartet, and in that time we’re going to try and cross almost all the way to the Gulf of Mexico to see some pretty stuff and then hightail on down to Mexico City.

I wonder where I’ll be next time you’re reading this blog?

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