I’m now headed for the coast, and have stopped off along the way in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. We’re not down to three riders – Anna has set off towards Puebla to work with a street kid foundation, linked to the one she was with in Brazil for three years.
Normally I’d give a metropolis this size a wide berth. Guadalajara seems well worth the detour though, as it sounds incredibly progressive in its bike culture. Every Sunday, much of the heart of the city is closed to traffic – a chance for pedestrians, cyclists and roller bladders to reclaim the streets.
The last few days have seen us climb back up into the mountains on a mixture of paved and dirt roads. We hit some bad weather too, holing up in the forlorn mountain settlement of General Joaquin Amaro, seeking refuge from the downpours that froze us to the bone. Unfortunately we couldn’t avoid taking a few major highways. The constant whoosh of cars, trucks and buses streaming by was a good reminder of why, if you value your well being, it’s well worth tracking down the quiet backroads and forgotten dirt tracks in Mexico.
Feeling lighter... I’ve sent almost 4kg of kit ahead to Puerto Escondido, on the coast in Oaxaca. Mexican internal post is extremely cheap; it only cost about 5 dollars. Apparently it’s reliable…
Keeping toasty round the fire. In fact, having descended a few hundred metres from Zacatecas on the highway, it was a warm evening. The warmest in some time. We soon climbed back up to 2400m in General Joaquin Amaro and felt coldness bite again.
Our campsite, a peaceful spot in a field, set amongst prickly pear cacti and shrubs.
Breakfast time. Ants munching on a cactus.
A choya cactus.
Hitting the paved backroad again after a night camping.
Dark clouds brewing… The forecast was for mixed weather.
Another battered, Mexican pickup. Love ‘em.
On the way back up into the mountains. Still smiling, just, even in the cold and drizzle.
A debt collector, trundling by on a moped, told as this remote area has big marajuana plantations - a ranch was busted the week before by soldiers. Perhaps it was the rain, but the villages seemed to have the same cold, lifeless feel as those in Chihuahua - which also shares a similar drug scene.
It was pouring by the time we made it to General Joaquin Amaro. The lady who made us stomach-filling gorditas told us about a women in town, Julia, who rented out a room. Camping didn't appeal, so we knocked on the door and a head popped out of the window. Yes, I have a room, said Julia. How much is it? asked Jeff. Barratissimo, she replied. Very cheap. But... there’s no bathroom, she added. Ah, said Jeff. So what do we do for the toilet? he asked. She shrugged… Indeed, the room was basic, but it kept us dry, and relatively warm, for which we were thankful. And there were three massive beds, including the LoveBed, which Jason crashed out in. Even stealth-loo worked out ok in the end.
It rained and rained. By the time we’d emerged onto the streets after napping in our room, the place was all but dead. So we cooked up dinner on the floor with the coke can cooker. Gourmet cuisine.
In the morning, we caught the interest of the local schoolgirls, who told us we had bonitos ojos – beautiful eyes (!) – and asked to have their photo taken with us.
Then we continued on, towards the ranchero of Mesa de Palmera, on a dirt and bedrock road that curled out of the top of town.
It was cobbled in places, and afforded big views of the hills around. And the sun was out!
Stones walls, mottled with moss and lichen. Almost felt like the Quantocks...
We wound our way along the dirt road in a forest of oak and manzenilla, dodging puddles. This track was a real find, all thanks to the Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes maps, which have opened up a whole new world of off road options.
Finally, we broke out onto the finger of a ridge, taking in the distant barrancas – canyons - before us. Unfortunately we chose the wrong way at one of the unmarked junctions, and spiralled right down to a smallholding, only to be pointed back up the climb again by the surprised farmer.
Back on track: more deathtrap cattle grids.
Then it started to rain, hard, as thunder rumbled across the land and the dirt beneath our tyres slipped like grease. Wet and cold, we sought refuge in a frigid doorway of one of the tiny grocery stores in Mesa de Palmira, along with bedraggled locals.
When the heavy downpour eventually turned to drizzle, we set off once more for an epic, switchback descent, half lost in swirling clouds.
Waterproof jacked by Nau. Mexican sombrero, model’s own.
That evening we camped out under a tree on a hilltop, and built a fire to dry out our soaked clothes. The next morning, the sun did its best to burn off the clouds. Yey!
But it was still misty in places.
Still, the red cinder track was smooth and fast, a joy to ride on.
And when the clouds did lift, an epic barranca – canyon – was revealed to us. A massive descent lay ahead…
… which ended on a cobbled road as we reached the outskirts of Huiscolco. Originally, we’d planned to push further on into the mountains, but the weather had got the better of us. Just as well, as this ride had just catapulted itself into the Top Three of the Mexican Hall of Fame.
Beautiful, handlaid cobbles. This stretch went on for a few kilometres, hemmed in by old stones walls to either side.
We were back on Highway 54 again. Zacatecas, from where we came. The back way.
More fascination with old american gas guzzlers.
A Grand Torrino.
Although we needed to make up for some lost time, it was hard to resist pulling over for an impromptu tour of a mezcal distillery. Mezcal is similar to tequila – it’s made also made from agave. But like Champagne in France, tequila can only be so named if it’s from the state of Jalisco, next on our journey.
Agave plants, like an army of porcupines stretching across the fields… These ones had just been planted and should be ready to harvest in eight years.
The fermentation process…
And the finished product…
Then we snuck away from the highway and were back on a dirt road again, detouring through the town of Jalpa.
Lunchtime picnic – tortilla, salsa, tomatoes, avocado and pinch of salt. A pickup pulled over, and the sombrero-toting farmer enquired as to what we were eating. When I told him, he nodded in approval, waved cheerily, gunned the engine back to life and was off.
The downside of avoiding the main highways is that you have to give yourself up to the lay of the land.
Up and down. Up and down. Each massive climb onto a mesa was answered by a descent, until we hit the highway once more. Back on pavement, the road was busy and narrow at times, but at least riding on a Saturday felt relatively quiet. Just before Xtlahuacan, I was pulled over by the police. After an initial barrage of questions from the Federale - the officer seemed pleased I could handle them in Spanish - he turned to practising his English. And to more important matters, it seemed. “The woman in Guadalajara... They are the most beautiful in all of Mexico,” he assured us. “And they are…” for a moment, it was hard to tell if he was lost for words, or whether the English was escaping him. Then he simply made a curvaceous shape with his hands, and his young sidekick, a man in aviator shades who'd been scrutinising Jason's guitar case like it might be a concealed weapon, nodded in agreement.
Roadside snack – a couple of ceviche tostados to keep the legs turning.
What we hadn’t banked on was that the highway would climb up into the Sierra Morena, and then plummet back down into the depths of a barranca. Again and again. Still, we were making good progress, and were now in Jalisco, home of mariachis, rodeo, the mexican hat dance, tequila and the broad-rimmed sombrero.
Another pitstop, just as the sun was really beating down and we were digging into yet another climb. Here, Jason philosophises over the wonders of the coconut, a complete meal for 15 pesos – just over a dollar. First, a thirst quenching drink…
… then a feast of coconut meat, served with lime – and chilli if you fancy it.
A long time coming. Finally, the outskirts of Guadalajara. Situated on top of a mesa, the last 20kms of climbing really took it out of us.
Jeff takes a break. We’d probably climbed for over 50kms of the 105 kilometre day.
After battling lane-hogging buses and deathtrap potholes, we rolled into the centre of town.
The long arm of the law. I’ve seen police on bikes all over Mexico. These two officers stopped for a chat and to hear about the journey, welcoming us to Guadalajara.
The Need to Know Section