(click ‘rest of this entry‘ for the extended post)
I’ve been slacking on the blog front recently. I’m now in San Christobal de las Casas, Chiapas, so this is the first of a long overdue series of catchup posts…
The journey from Zihuatanejo to Puerto Escondido took me from the Costa Grande – the big coast – to the Costa Chica – the little one. And in doing so, from the state of Guerrero to that of Oaxaca. Although the road here is certainly busier than it was in Michoacan, there are still a string of beautiful, people-less beaches to pitch camp at night, as well as the cartel-crazed, megopolis resort of Acapulco to break up the journey.
Not much in the way of dirt road options here, as there are no real alternatives to the coastal Route 200, the narrow highway that either twists and turns inland into the mountains – hemmed between jungle foliage, palm plantations and papayas – or skirts the seafront past a string of dusty, rustic pueblecitos.
When it comes to coastal touring, the best rides end up with a refreshing dip, just as the sun is setting over the ocean…
And likewise, how can you beat a fresh coconut for breakfast? This was a gift from a friendly, sun-crinkled gardener working at a swish hotel in Papanoa – he’d even de-husked it so it was easy to carry. Interestingly, I’d heard the all-but-empty hotel overlooking the beach I was camping on was built for money-laundering by one of the powerful Guerrero narco cartels. Even more interestingly, it was situated right opposite the police station…
In fact, having lopped them of a tree while balancing atop the roof of his ancient pickup truck, and after deftly slicing them open with grace and precision, gardener Gabriel insisted I take a few coconuts given his efforts… Luckily Arkel panniers have elasticated lids, and my campspot was close.
While we were chatting, two kids wandered over. They brandished homemade caterpaults, and from within an old rucksack, pulled out three two-foot iguanas by their tails – destined to be served with some green chillies. I had seen one of these massive iguanas scurry across the hot tarmac road earlier that day, and it was impressive creature to behold. Sadly, these ones had had their legs broken so they couldn’t do the same.
More reptilian critters. This time squashed.
Perhaps by something like this. I’d heard bad stories about traffic along the coast. For the most part Highway 200 was quieter than I imagined, though it can be hair-raisingly narrow. Although the fleet of vehicles prowling the roads is modernising, there are still plenty of characterful VW Beetles and Combis, their roofracks crammed with colourful bags, inflated beach dinghies or crates of bananas and papayas.
Trucks, even double-trailer goliaths like this one, are generally courteous to cyclists, giving as much room as they can when they pass. The aircon, luxury buses are a far sneakier foe. Despite their size, they materialise silently behind you. Then whoosh by. And it scares the living b’Jesus out of you. There’s not much you can do but mutter abuse and shake a fist – unless you’re hanging on to the handlebar for dear life.
The other challenge is the midday heat, which is ratcheting up with each pedal turn south. Well into the 40s and 50s. At midday, I’ve been skulking into the cooling gloom of one of the internet cafes found in every town.
The sterile aircon ambiance of Oxo can also offer an escape, though the chain become something of a pet hate for me. Prices are high, and all sense of community is lost in these Seven Eleven-style identikit stores. I far prefer the dishevelled and independent ‘abarottes’, Mexico’s grocery stores. Unfortunately, Oxo is probably just one more step towards a US-centric, homogenised Mexico.
Far better than aircon: a locally made ice cream, in a multitude of flavours.
Like this, with real strawberries, for 12 pesos. About a dollar.
Or then there’s a quick pit stop for a bag of oranges. Topes – sleeping policemen – line most villages, slowing traffic down. Ideal real estate for street vendors, who gather around cars with freshly squeezed orange juice served in plastic bag with straws. ‘Animo!’ they called out – courage – as I rode by. One lady kindly insisted I needn’t pay for my juice after I told her all about my journey, but did suggest I take her daughter with me. Fending off marriage proposals is a recurring theme for the solo male in Mexico. As is negotiating the confident sense of sexuality many Mexican women exude. Little matter that many are decidedly short and squat – they still give you smouldering looks as they walk by. ‘Where is your girlfriend?’ asked one woman who sold me a coconut. ‘Ah, I know, you want a girlfriend from Guerrero too, that’s why you didn’t bring her!’
Talking of coconuts, it’s always with a relief that I spot the sign – Cocos Frios Barratos – cheap cold coconuts. 10 pesos gets you a drink, a meal and a killer Pacific view.
In fact, ride down any dirt road towards the Pacific and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find yet another wild, empty beach.
In terms of riding, I’m running my bike pretty light these days, though with the tropics of Central America to come, there’s plenty of kit that can still be jettisoned.
I’ve also invested in some slicks, bought for 90 pesos (about 7 dollars) in a local bike store. Both for faster road riding over this next 1000km, and to save my Schwalbe tyres for the dirt roads ahead.
Running a lighter setup makes steep coastal climbs far more manageable. It wasn’t long before I was experiencing the bright lights and dizzy heights of Acapulco, the stomping ground of Frank Sinatra in the 50s. A chocabloc, 6 lane highway pinballed me around the impressive, golden sand fringed, 11km long Bahia de Acapulco, just as dusk was falling. There I battled with fleets of VW taxis and wealthy weekenders, descending upon its beaches from Mexico City, just a few hours drive away.
Right now, Acapulco having a facelift, having transformed itself into the premier haunt on the US Spring Break circuit. Which is a phenomena in itself: hoards of 19 year old blonds fly in, descending upon the city to beach lounge by day, and party by night. I tracked down the Irish crew I’d met in Zihuatanejo - Cillian, Dave and Steve. Hotel prices are high, so for the best bargain, the four of us got coazy room with two ‘matrimonial’ beds... I curled up with Steve. Meet the boys, sleeping off another hangover, having quickly corrupted my unblemished record of early nights... On a darker note, Acapulco is also becoming increasingly infamous for its cartel wars. That weekend over thirty people were shot, including 5 policemen. Bodies were found strewn in a hotel just ten minutes away, and also along the main road leading past some of Acapulco’s premier nightclubs; chopped up and decapitated, the calling card of the La Familia cartel. Along with its faded glamour, pimps and pushers, and a string of all-you-can-drink nightclubs, there’s definitely an edgy, drug and alcohol-fuelled feel to the place.
Which encouraged me to move on once more… I put in a big day, more than 150km, and met up with the Irish down the road at Playa Ventura. Having bought a car in San Diego, they’re surfing their way down the coast to Panama, seeking out the best spots as they go. Great hanging out with you guys!
The Pelican Patrol at Playa la Piedra.
More food! I stopped for a corn on the cob, cooked over an oil drum, and sprinkled with salt and lime. Then this scrawny chicken pecked at the leftovers.
Lovely. Roadside fruit snacks.
Not so lovely. My scummy T shirt.
On the odd occasion I stay in a hotel, I do a quick wash. Meeting up with the Irish gave me the chance to jettison more kit until Puerto Escondido, my next stopping point and also on their surf spot hitlist. What you see here is pretty much the sum total of my current wardrobe.
The coast road also takes you through Cuajinicuilapa, an area home to Afro Mestizos, or Mexicanos Morenos, as they call them. Said to be descendents of a slave ship than ran aground, the people here are darker and known for their African features. When I stopped to munch down an entire watermelon sold from a roadside table, the man with the fat gut who chopped it up pointed to his friend; an old, wizened gentleman with short, curly white hair. ‘Look at him’, he said, tugging on his hair with a laugh, and they all cracked up.
A hundred kilometres or so before Puerto Escondido, I detoured down a track to the Parque National Lagunas de Chicagua. What I didn’t realise was that this would meant a 30km stretch of dusty washboard… Brought back Great Divide memories...
I stopped to chat to these kids hauling firewood. Cool trailer, built by one of the guys in their village.
Then I caught a small boat – a lancha – across the river to the settlement on the other side.
There, a beautiful beach awaited, with a string of restaurants selling sea food, set up within the shade of palapas. With its long break, this really was a surfer’s paradise. I found a spot to pitch my tent and took it easy for a day.
They teach ‘em young round here.
Puffer fish washed up on the shore.
Another river ride connected me to the mainland once more. By now, I was well into Oaxaca State. A few final hills lay ahead, long and gentle rollers.
Until I hit Puerto Escondido. I was last here some 15 years ago, and I hardly recognised the place. With the build up to Semana Santa - a holiday period where Mexico experiences a mass migration to the beaches for the Easter - things were starting to get busy.
It was hot hot hot. This dog had the right idea…
At touristy as the main strip of Puerto Escondido can be, the market was all but gringo-free. Plenty of fish eyeballing each other though.
I love these markets, with their blend of aromas and colours, and mishmash of noise and hubub: fresh juices and licuados, mounds of vegetables, blocks of salty cheese, tasty tacos, intestine soups, sheets of drying meat… Like any touring cyclist, I'm forever on the lookout for new snacks, and this was a good discovery. Locally made chocolate…
And of course, Mexico side streets are never short of the bizarre. An army of figurines was on display in one shop…
And to round off this post, a little gem of a calm beach, away from the pounding surf – Playa Carriza Lillo.
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