Playa Real to Zihuatanejo – The Michoacan Coast

(click ‘rest of this entry‘ below for the extended post)

As much as they may enjoy reading about this bike trip, I don’t expect my non-cycling friends and family who dip into this blog will have felt much in the way of envy. The Michoacan Coast, however, may change some minds…

After eight months in the mountains, I’m now following Mexico’s sinuous Pacific coastline – via a string of empty beaches, palm thatch huts, surfer hangouts, lush forest and coconut plantations. I was told that the state of Michoacan is a highlight of Mexico’s thousands of kilometres of coastline – and it’s certainly proved so.

Sure, it’s punctuated by tortuous hills, and the beating, humid heat demands early starts to the day. But both are also a good excuse for stunning sunrise rides and long, lingering lunchtime breaks – coinciding with a dip in the sea. All in all, this is as idyllic a coastal riding as I could have hoped for. The roads are narrow but quiet, and what traffic there is seems unhurried enough to wait a minute or two for a good spot to pass – generally with a friendly peep of the horn.

it seems a world away from the spit and sawdust cowboy towns of the Sierra Madre. A few months ago I’d never even heard of Michoacan; now I find myself enamored by it, even backtracking to investigate beaches I’d overlooked. In many ways, this fluidity, and this constant sense of evolution and change, is what draws me to travelling with an open schedule. Picking up tips, going with your mood and feeling comfortable enough to completely change your plans without any sense of regret is all part of the experience. Longterm travel may bring with it a constant, and sometimes exhausting, forrage for the daily necessities of life – cheap food or digs – but it also opens up a whole new world, imbued with spontaneity and freedom. It’s one I love.

I’m also now riding alone, having travelled with Jeff and Jason since New Mexico. The Volks brothers are headed to Puerto Vallarta to meet up with a friend who owns an expat bar. Sounds messy… It’s been great journeying together and perhaps I’ll bump into them again in Central America – in the meantime, take it easy, dudes!

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Another end to the day in Michoacan…

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Another lunchtime break… At some beaches, like San Juan, the main road passes by just a handful of metres from the sea.

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And just one more…

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Indeed, you can hardly ride 20kms without coming across another long and empty Mexican beach… For the most part, Michoacan is quiet and untouristy, though the pounding Pacific surf attracts, naturally enough, surfers from around the world. La Ticla is one such spot; home to palm thatch huts, string hammocks and a chilled vibe.

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At times, the road skirts right beside the beach, and at other times, it can be a stiff climb up and over a headland to get to the next ripples of sand. It's been peaceful riding. The air's filled with the heady smell of papayas. Birds with extravagant headresses swoop overhead, and iguanas crackle the roadside like noisy cinema-goers. I’ve seen several tarantulas, the size of my hand, scurry across the road…

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A good reason perhaps to keep my tent closed at night… You can camp beside most sea front restaurants for just a couple of dollars. People recommend being careful here. As well as Michoacan's and Guerrero's powerful drug cartels,there are also robbers who frequent this coastline. The constant bombardment of warnings – the dangers of the road, La Familia, the robbers – can be exhausting, and it's easy to let it throw a negative shadow across your thoughts if you let it. For the most part, everything is absolutely fine. But it's also good to be careful, as incidents do happen. I heard about one recent holdup where five gunmen robbed campers on a beach in the middle of the night. The other trick is to quietly slice open a tent at night, while its inhabitants are fast asleep.

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Lingering lunch breaks are a good chance to catch up on some reading, and deal with odd job repairs.

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I stopped in Maruata, a sleepy beachside settlement, for a couple of days. A chance to catch up on the magazine work that helps pay my way. I couldn’t hope for better office views… Yes, I do feel very lucky…

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Maruata has three beaches, each one more deserted than the next. In this, the middle beach, waves come pounding into the rocks, and white water froths through a network of tunnels.

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Like much if the coast, Michoacan sees nocturnal visits by sea turtles, who beach on these shores to lay their multitude of ping pong ball-like eggs. 45 days later, the little ‘uns hatch, and scamper down towards the water. If they haven’t already been gobbled down by ever hungry dogs, they face a wave of sea birds next. About one in every hundred survive. This one passed by my tent while I was asleep, bumped into one of the pillars holding up the palapa, and then finally found the sea.

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Camped beside me were 3 families, including Satsiri and her two kids, Shanti and Aloe, hailing from what’s sounds like an idyllic part of the world – the Kootnies, in British Colombia. One evening, Satsiri and I set off to look for turtles with Lucus, a local lobster diver. We scoured the beach as the moon arced across the sky, and Lucas made Satsiri promise to bring him back a Canadian wife (the proviso: she had like turtle egg omlettes and be short, so he didn’t need to crane his neck to look up at her). In all, we found five, as well as a couple of dozen fully armed military personal who also sweep the shores each night, ostensibly to protect the turtles.

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On the lookout for turtles. We wandered up and down until sunrise.

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And then hiked up to a viewpoint as the light coated the cacti-flecked hills.

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In fact, it proved a tricky place to drag myself away from. There can be few ‘developed’ beaches that are so laid back. The odd hammock hawker. A young girl who passes by in the evenings selling her grandmother’s fresh backed goods. Low key accommodation: little beachside huts dot the shores, some more run down than others. I pitched my tent in front of a young family's hut for 20 pesos a night

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Everyone is out looking for fish; humans and sea birds alike. Leggy egrettes tip toe around the lapping waves. In the morning, fisherman gather to gossip around their wooden boats, and in the evening, local divers head off to search for lobsters.

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The Pelican Patrol.

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From here, I pushed onto the surfer hangout of Nexpa, where cabanas, their rooves made from discoloured palm thatch, were raised up on stilts looking out to the Pacific. Naxpa’s long, hazy beach was strewn with driftwood and odd flip flops, and the constant crash of surf set the time. Cheri and Dino – who's been coming here for almost three decades – took me under their wing, feeding me a lovely breakfast and dinner.

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While we were chatting, a hammock seller past by. It was hot, and Dino offered him a glass of fresh lime juice clinking with ice. ‘I got to work,’ said the man. ‘No, sit down and drink some lemonada,’ said Dino. So he did. Then he asked for a guitar, pulled out a plectrum tucked in his trouser pocket and started to sing, in a gentle voice, songs about the Mexican revolution.

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Back on my way, acres of coconut groves fringed the road. I love these tall, gravity-defying, gangly trees…

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… and their fruit. An abundance of stops for refreshing, from-the-fridge coconut water kept me going in the heat.

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The stretch leading into Lazaro Cardenas even had a freshly laid cycle lane, which I had to myself.

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The road crossed swampy waterways feeding from the lumpy sierras into the open sea. A few crocs were basking in the shallow waters across one of them. The indigenous Indians are known to eat pretty much anything – like the local turtles and iguanas that inhabit these parts – so I was surprised these crocs were still around.

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Camping at another surfer hangout, Rancho Capire. Wes, a surfer from BC who I’d met in Nexpa, rustled up a mean platter of avocados, tomatoes and onion, which we heaped onto tostadas – fried, crinkled tortillas.

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Everyone was awaiting the next big swell, chilling out in the waters or reading books in their hammocks. Not a bad way to spend the winter…

The Need to Know Section

Distance: 445km (inc detours to beaches)

Road conditions: Good quality tarmac. The Colima stretch of the coast had a shoulder, which disappeared when we crossed into Michoacan. Still, the traffic is quiet and respectful, with few trucks, so a pleasant surprise. Boiling hot in the midday, with some climbs of up to 7km in length that will have you drenched in sweat. One 40km segment south of Maruata is particularly gruelling.

Beach action: Peppered all along the way. Some require a detour of a few kilometres, like La Ticla, others, like San Juan, are right by the road. There are literally dozens and dozens of them.

Food: abundant sea food, to suit all tastes and prices, from the restaurants that line the beaches. Plenty of aborretes (grocery stores) too. Local gently hawk fresh food on the beach – like warm banana bread – or avail yourself to the mounds of coconuts and papaya that are sold out of the back of pickups on the roadside.

Cheap digs: any of the beaches seem to have hotels and cabanas, or you can camp for 20–50 pesos a night. Recommended, as robbers are known to wander the shores. In Zihuatanejo, I stayed at the friendly Angela’s hostel (110 pesos for a dorm room), close to the bustling Mercado Municipal.

Internet: Sandy feet allowed. Most beachside villages have a Ciber – a cyber cafe – charging from 10–20 pesos an hour. Or you can generally plug in/wifi your laptop, for the same price.

30 thoughts on “Playa Real to Zihuatanejo – The Michoacan Coast

  1. Simon Giles

    Right…that’s it Cass…you’ve gone too far! It is Baltic here and I am struggling to hit a deadline for Friday. I could deal with the stunning landscapes and tales from middle America. I could even deal with the beautiful, sparse mountain scapes of the Sierra but the surf beaches are a step too far.

    This is tantamount to harassment and I won’t stand for it…enjoy compadre…S

    Reply
  2. otbiking Post author

    Just back from an early morning dip in the sea, here in Acapulco…

    Superlight setup for days rides. But with a full frame pack and a seat pack, reckon you could tour with with not much more… And fitted some slicks too for speedy road riding!

    Reply
  3. Matt

    I’ve only one small question for ya hombre: do you have a spare desk lurking around that I could commandeer at all?! Going from all that I guess you won’t be popping back to Blighty any time soon then?! ;-)

    Reply
  4. Matt

    d’oh! sorry about that duplication btw… am all fingers and thumbs just thinking about idyllic beaches and surf, sinuous trails, and endless roads.

    Reply
  5. Gretta

    (from the bike house in Silver City, NM, right?
    Hi Cass -
    It’s so nice to read about your continuing travels and live a bit vicariously through your pics.. Yikes! It’s good shit. Sounds like your managing alright, okay, keep up the excellence and thankyou for the virtual vacation!

    Reply
  6. robert

    someone told me years ago about this guy who hadn’t washed or cut his hair in ages. after awhile, a baby tarantula crawled into his hair, nested there, grew big, then……..

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      yes. but because we had so many fires going, I managed to eek out my fuel supply all the way from Silver City! now it´s hot and coastal, so I´m mainly eating cold food, streetside tacos or fish in the restaurants. So not needed to track down any fuel yet. That’s another aspect about it that I like. It’s small and light enough that I don{t mind carrying it around even if I don{t use it much.

      Reply
  7. Steve Jones

    Hi there! Wonderful photos you’re getting on this ride. Are you still using a D-SLR or have you switched to a compact? Just curious.
    Another Tech bit:
    The Apple iPad will soon hit the market. Any thoughts about using that on a bike trip as opposed to a heavier laptop? It has word processing and is much lighter in weight.
    By the way my friend and I ( here in Japan ) both bought a Thorn sterling last year with a view to signing up for one of your Spiti jaunts and then you pedalled off to Mexico! Looks like it was worth it! We ‘broke in’ the bikes on a trip to Mt. Tam and along the coast to Big Sur in California last summer, but, I have to ask, are you going to do the Himalaya tours again? We’re waiting.

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      hi steve.
      not sure about india just yet… will keep you posted! would be great to try out the ipad some time, though the fact that it relies on wifi (rather than having a USB port or SD slots) could be an issue at times. I’m not using a DSLR any more, instead a smaller ‘micro 4/3′ Panasonic GF1. Great for bike travel.

      Reply
  8. baz

    Hey Cass, as usual, envious of your fantastic journey and beautiful photos! Hope you are having as much fun and fulfilment as I imagine I would have on such a journey!

    How are you doing for tech at the moment? What are you blogging on/from? How did that netbook work out? If you’re in need I might be able to arrange some gadgets, sure we can weedle some deal if there’s exposure on your blog/in your writing.

    Take care and keep smiling dude!

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      baz! always on the lookout for gadgets to try! I returned the Asus, so right now, I’m using a Samsung NC10 I bought just before the trip, which is holding up well. Bigger keyboard too, and still quite light at 1.2kg. Not SDD though, I looked into swapping the HD out before I left, but the prices for SDD are still pretty high. I take photos with a Panasonic GF1 in RAW, then convert them with Lightroom on the Samsung. Lightroom is a big program, so it’s painfully slow to process them into low res JPGS, but it gets there. I write the blog on BlogJet, then upload when I get to a wifi point – quicker than doing it all online. Most places have wifi, otherwise I have a little memory stick for transferring pictures and text. I back everything up onto a WD portable hard drive, which I keep in a waterproof, padded container. So far, so good…

      Reply
  9. Wes

    Hey Cass, it was truly a pleasure meeting you and hanging out at The Ranch. I really enjoyed Lagunas Chacahua and while there I joined the crew of a sailing yacht (a life long dream of mine). I now find myself in northern Nicaragua in Marina Puesta Del Sol. We are planning to continue south in a few days, you would be welcome to spend a night aboard if our paths should happen to cross again.

    Regards,

    Wes

    Reply
  10. bridgetsbikeblog

    Hey cass,
    Have been checking for more updates, hope this isn’t the end of the trip? Will be quite disappointed if so… Have loved the blog,from a cyclists perspective, armchair travel isnt bad when you have the eye you do for detail and quirkyness and a way with the word too!
    Off to ride the last of our pristine ‘Wildcoast’ of Pondoland, soon to be destroyed by a highway….

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      still here, just been slacking on the blogging front. So hot that all I can do is collapse in my tent at night…
      ‘soon to be destroyed by a highway’? that doesn’t sound too good…

      Reply
  11. Evan

    Cass, I think you have quite a following now. Lots of us in armchairs and with high-speed wifi. I even like checking out your site with the WP app. Glad to see your just slacking a bit-you deserve a break from the digital world…but, we’d love to see more of your adventure!

    Reply
  12. Tanya & David

    For Mexicans, it feels good to hear that people are willing to take a hard ride to find Mexico’s magic. Glad you enjoyed your trip here!

    Reply

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