The end of Central America: Costa Rica and Panama

Camping in front of the restaurant near San Ramon

Camping in front of the restaurant near San Ramon

Colourful leaves

Colourful leaves

The Varela family who looked after me in their restaurant

The Varela family who looked after me in their restaurant

From Lago Ometepe in Nicaragua, Costa Rica can be reached by an over night ferry to San Carlos and a short boat ride across the river San Juan to Los Chile in Costa Rica. This turned out to be a fun experience, I particularly liked the San Juan river, seemed like a good one to go a canoe.

Heading straight to the mountains from San Jose

Heading straight to the mountains from San Jose

Camping in the hotel front yard in the mountains

Camping in the hotel front yard in the mountains

View from 3300 metres on top of Cerro de la muerte

View from 3300 metres on top of Cerro de la muerte

As soon as I crossed the border things were quite different. Costa Rica was lush green, good roads and better quality of food. I had a welcome rain in Costa Rica within 30 minutes of crossing, but luckily I had a Warmshowers host where I cleaned the dirt off my bike. There was a 1200 metres high mountain to be crossed to reach San Jose. The fog on the top of the mountain was heavy and visibility was poor so I decided to camp out in front of a restaurant for the night. The Varela family who ran the restaurant made me coffee and breakfast in the morning and in spite of working from early in the morning to late in the evening they all seem to be happy.

San Jose was just another big city in Central America, I did not find anything particularly interesting. After San Jose I had a choice to stay on the mountains for few more days or take the coastal route. I chose the mountain route even though I had to climb 3370 metres (Cerro de la Muerte). This indeed turned out to be a good choice. The mountain road did not have much traffic and the scenery was awesome. It was about 80 Km’s climb to the top which I did it over two days. On the first day, I climbed up to 2500 metres and camped in a hotel yard; they were happy for me to camp since I ate dinner at their restaurant. The weather was cooler and the mountains reminded me of swiss Alps. The second day I reached the top around 11 am and then it was the much anticipated 45 Km’s non-stop downhill ride from 3370 metres to about 600 metres, one full hour of gravity-assisted-no-pedal riding at almost 50 kilometre per hour speed most of the way, it is quite hard to describe this experience in few words. After reaching San Isidro de General I had a 400 metres climb back up before descending again to sea level over another 15 kilometres.

Perhaps it was too much downhill riding for a single day; I had a close call. In one of the sharp corners, I was too far out and could not get back to my lane quickly and there was a truck in front of me in the opposite lane, both of us were beyond breaking point and collision was imminent. I let the bike go across the road and crashed in the bushes. This picture is quite vivid in my mind, I don’t think I will ever forget this. Amazingly, there was not much damage, my bike handle bar got twisted and I had few scratches on my legs nothing more. I was dreading some greater damage to my bike. I managed to cycle another 10 Km’s after the incident to reach Playa Dominical where I stayed in a church.

Costa Rica- Panama border

Costa Rica- Panama border

I rode for two more days along the coast of Costa Rica before crossing into Panama. I enjoyed Costa Rica for its dense vegetation, rivers, warm weather, good quality food and happy people. The only downside was the cost, it was expensive compared to its neighbours. Costa Rica felt like the Switzerland of Central America. Costa Ricans are quite proud of their coffee, quite rightfully I think.

Camping in a picnic spot next to the river in Sajalices, Panama

Camping in a picnic spot next to the river in Sajalices, Panama

Crossing the Panama Canal

Crossing the Panama Canal

Costa Rica-Panama border crossing was straight forward but the queue was long; it took be about 75 minutes. After border crossing, I stayed with a lovely expat couple Joe and Kristine in the city of David in Panama who lived just 2 minutes from a river. This was a brilliant place to cool off considering the 30 degree C heat during daytime. I took a day off here to rest. Several cyclists and my Warmshowers hosts warned me about the highway construction work in Panama between David and Santiago. So I decided to skip about 200 Km’s and arrived in Santiago de Verahaus by a bus. From here it was three days riding to Panama City, the capital of Panama. Riding on the bridge across tho Panama Canal was exciting, the heavy traffic only adds to the excitement. I am now south of the canal and I plan to traverse 70 kilometres to the city of Colon on the Caribbean side where I will catch the ferry to Colombia. My journey in Central America will end soon, but there is something exciting to look forward to: South America!

The route (Total 850 Km’s riding): Lago Ometepe – San Carlos (boat) – Los Chile (boat)- Santa Rosa (52) – San Ramon (75) – San Jose (76) – Cerro Alto (65) – Playa Dominical (120) – Rio Clara (120) – David (90) – Santiago (200 by bus)- Penonome (102) – Sajalices (82)-Panama City (65)

Sun set at Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

Sun set at Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

Route profile: Los Chile to Panama City

Route profile: Los Chile to Panama City

Moreno from Nicaragua

The sun rise party at the Atami resort on top of the cliff overlooking the sea was indeed a perfect spot in terms of both partying and to watch the sun rise on the New Year’s day. Eugene, I and his friends felt 20 USD for a party that included unlimited drinks and breakfast in the morning was a brilliant deal. We all made use of it and stayed up until the sun rise and slept after having breakfast!

Sun rise with Eugene on 1st January

Sun rise with Eugene on 1st January

El Salvador - Honduras border

El Salvador – Honduras border

My excuse to chill and stay in the resort ran out since Christmas and New Year comes only once in a year. I left on the 2nd of January. The next 600 Km’s (route map updated) was done over 6 days cycling with a day stop over each at Leon, Managua and Granada. Eugene was not cycling anymore but backpacking around with his friend Charlou. After 5 days, I met them again in the hostel in Leon, Nicaragua. It was a bit strange to see him again as a backpacker.

After La Libertad in El Salvador, I cycled for two days each in El Salvador, Honduras and then finally Nicaragua. These are all not too big countries and also the roads I took were mostly flat, nothing exciting in terms of scenery. It was too hot to enjoy cycling so I was merely pedalling to get through. In terms of facilities and services Honduras was not great, it seemed very undeveloped. There were plenty of tourists in Nicaragua, especially in Leon and Granada, both of which were well known for its colonial architecture.

The happy folks at the Specialized bike shop in  Managua, Nicaragua

The happy folks at the Specialized bike shop in Managua, Nicaragua

Safety is generally a concern in this region, however with sensible precautions and care cycling through this region was not a major issue. There were armed guards in front of banks and supermarkets and most of the little shops had iron bars through which commerce took place. In addition most shops were closed after dark and very few people were on the streets after the sun set. All these indicate security concerns although during the day life seem normal. In a small village called Villa 15 in Nicaragua, the hospedaje was full, so I went to the police station to ask for a place to camp. The officer asked me to cycle another 35 km’s to the next big town to find a hotel and warned me that I will be robbed if I stayed anywhere else. There is something to be said when a police officer warns of danger.

Honduras- Nicaragua border

Honduras- Nicaragua border

I crossed three borders over four days (El Salvador-Honduras-Nicaragua). Luckily, bicycle tourists don’t have the same bureaucratic nightmare as someone who is on a motorised vehicle. There were no information in English and mostly chaos at the borders. The border officers don’t seem to like their job, the clients (tourists) don’t like them either, a fatal combination if it were to be a business.

The gringo calling restarted in Honduras and continued into Nicaragua. At the Honduras-Nicaraguan border, a group of fruit selling girls called me ‘hey moreno’. I was stopping there for the border formalities anyway, so I decided to challenge them. I said to them I wouldn’t call anyone ‘hey gordito’ (fatty) so there was no need to refer to my skin colour. The exchange went on for a few minutes. I hope they understood what I meant. Later, elsewhere, I learnt from some locals that referring by skin colour is quite normal in this region. I was more annoyed by their attitude than the name calling perse. Besides, I had to point to them that their same skin colour was not much different to mine.

Martinez family who hosted me in Santa  Rosa de Lima, El Salvador

Martinez family who hosted me in Santa Rosa de Lima, El Salvador

Lake Managua

Lake Managua

At Santa Rosa de Lima (close to El Salvador-Honduras border) I stopped at a small bicycle shop which was in the front yard of a house to ask for a hotel or camping spot. Martinez family were very kind and offered me a place to sleep immediately. On top of this they made dinner for me and wouldn’t let me leave without breakfast with them. I spoke with Walter who was studying engineering and was able to talk to me in English. When I informed him about Warmshowers he was very excited and signed up immediately to host cyclists in future. In fact he had a couple stayed at this place, just two days after I left. The support of the families like Martinez make this trip more adventurous and fun.

Nicaragua is a land of lakes and volcanoes. I passed by lake Managua and currently in a small island called Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. There are two volcanoes in this island and I hope to climb one of them. I will stay here for two more days before I cross in to Costa Rica.

Christmas with the Canadians (French speaking)

From Antigua, Eugene and Sam left a day earlier to El Salvador. I spent an extra day in Antigua mostly wandering around. The next day was a good start; losing an altitude of 1500 metres over 30 kilometres was not hard. Although, a wrong turn at the end of this costed me a 22 Km’s detour. As I lost altitude, the temperature soared. However, riding under the tree canopy provided a lovely respite from the sun. Once on the coast, the road was mostly flat to Guazacapan a 115 Km’s ride for the day.

image

Riding under the tree canopy

traffic at the Guatemala-El Salvador border

Traffic at the Guatemala-El Salvador border

The next day, 20th December, I crossed into El Salvador. There was a long queue of trucks, approximately 6 Km’s that were waiting for the customs at the border. However, foot passengers, cyclists and smaller vehicles did not have much of a problem. I probably spent less than two minutes at each counter, both Gautemalan and El Salvador immigration offices. A total of 97 Km’s for the day but it was mostly flat; a pleasant ride.

Atami Resort, El Salvador

Atami Resort, El Salvador

The third day was about 75 Km’s to the resort where Eugene’s family were waiting for me. On the road, I was joined by two more French cyclists whom we have met before. We were 11 of us in total including Eugene’s friends, family and the cyclists, at the holiday accommodation. This cottage was in a lovely place, near La Libertad, El Salvador, including a swimming pool and plenty of trees and a big open area and on top of this it was less than 5 minutes walk to the beach; luxury does not come any better.

We were 9 of us with lots of energy. The team spirit pulled me into playing games that I have never played before; football and rugby. I even tried bodyboardong in the sea.

Eugene and I had been planning curry for christmas for sometime and have requested his parents to bring some spices including the ones that Jeyatha had sent for us.

Fun at the pool

Fun at the pool

Curry for Christmas under the hot sun for the Canadians; no, the climate change has not gotten that far, not yet perhaps. The house smelled like Pondicherry during its colonial times, although the French treated everyone equal this time!

With the help of the team, I prepared a big curry for Christmas eve. The quantities of ingredients we used is a hint to the amount of curry prepared and consumed: 25 onions, 15 tomatoes, 6 garlic bulbs, 20 eggs. In addition, Eugene’s parents brought 10 kgs of basmati rice from Canada, of which almost 6 Kgs was consumed over three meals. The Christmas eve was spent eating and playing cards until midnight, followed by several board games that were carefully designed to consume fluids which generally makes one laugh and dehydrate. Be a Roman when you are in Rome, I took the full plunge since I was not going to resume cycling for a few days.

Christmas feast

Christmas feast

Christmas eve dinner

Christmas eve dinner

Cyclists on their way out

Cyclists on their way out

I had festive times on the road in the past during my previous travels, but this one was exceptional. Momsie and Popsie (Eugene’s parents) were young at heart and we had lots in common from, science to philosophy and life in general. I don’t think this was a chance meeting, perhaps the subconscious has its own ways to bring like minded together. We all ate, played, laughed and relaxed as one big family. It was a happy christmas, a very happy christmas indeed.

I decided to stay here until the new year while the three other cyclists left after christmas; sadly Eugene’s cycling trip ends here, but I am sure he will be on his bike again at some other time. He had travelled much further than he anticipated in this trip. Well done Eugene I will miss your company though…

Many thanks to the Gendron-de Vette family, I had an amazing time. I now have lots of friends in Quebec without having been there.

Buenos dias from Guatemala

For this section of my ride, Eugene and I were joined by Sam who is also from Quebec, Canada. This section, 475 Km’s, from San Cristobal de las Casas to Antigua, Guatemala was like the mountain stages of Tour de France; tons of ascents and descents.

From San Cristobal de Las Casas, we left to Comitan; there was a 700 climb and then mostly downhill. At Comitan we stayed with Julia whom we knew through Roberto from Tuxtla. The next day we left to the border town called Ciudad Chautemoc. This was a fairly easy downhill ride except for the 7 Km’s roadworks sections which was worse than a dirt road. Eugene had pumped up his tyres a bit too much since the air was free at the gas station. Half-way through the rough section his back wheel tyre exploded as if he was hit by a drone. We camped at the park right in front of the Mexican immigration office. The talk of the town was the three cyclist camping and using some fancy stoves to cook a meal in the park. We had lots of spectators who would not leave. There was nothing else going on in this town, so we had to put up with this.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to Antigua, Guatemala

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to Antigua, Guatemala

If its free, he will take too much - sometimes it's not good mate.

If its free, he will take too much – sometimes it’s not good mate.

The Mexican immigration office was just a building on the side of the road, no barriers or gates, people were just driving up and down; only tourists seem to stop here. The Guatemala immigration office was 3 km from the Mexican immigration office on the top of a steep hill. I never understood the 3 Km’s gap between the immigration offices though. The Guatemalan immigration office was right at the end of a busy market area and no body bothers to check the people crossing this area. However as genuine tourists, we had to be diligent. We got our passports stamped with no questions, almost open border I guess. This day was mostly climbing, through beautiful mountains. The Guatemalan highlands scenery was spectacular, lush green, neck-breaking tall mountains. The road was right next to a river for most of the day. It was like cycling the Alps in France except for the vegetation. We arrived in Huehuetenango, at 445 pm; a long day since we started at 7am. We were quite knackered so we checked into the hotel that the Italian couple suggested.

camping in a park at the border town in Mexico.

camping in a park at the border town in Mexico.

Lago Atitlan

Lago Atitlan

The road from Huehuetenango to San Cristobal Totonicapan was much harder than what we expected. Some of the climbs were so steep that I had to keep pedalling to stay upright. I was glad that I pedalled the whole way, the altitude at the highest point was about 2800metres. We stayed with a Warmshowers host in San Cristobal Totonicapan and I took two days off to recover.

Guatemalan highlands

Guatemalan highlands

 

 

 

 

SanCristobal Totonicapan to Panjachel, near Lago Atitlan was only 70kms away but we had to climb 700 metres first thing in the morning reaching the highest point overall in my ride so far at 3100 metres. This day I felt was quite tough and I thought it could not get worse. Actually, it could and it did. We spent a rest day in Lago Atitlan, which was surrounded by high mountains. It was like riding down a cliff to get to this lake and the ride back up was through some steep climbs, some of them 20% grade. For the first time in my ride, I had to push my bike up some of these climbs and at one point Eugene had to help me to push my bike. Also, the road surface was really bad and full of potholes too. It was frustrating to break so hard on the downhill section so much so that the rims of my wheels got heated up. One of the bridges on this road got washed away sometime ago and we had to cross the river by foot – first river crossing in my trip. It took 5 hours to cycle the first 35 Km’s from Lago Atitlan and was almost 1800 metres ascent. We arrived in Antigua much later than we expected. This town was filled with several hostels and is well catered for tourists. Antigua, Guatemala is famous for the colonial architecture, I have seen several towns like this in the last two months though the roads in the centre were different. Here the roads were just some rocks put together. The modern day automobile ride on these roads is so bumpy; even the horses during the colonial times would have found it hard to pull their carts through here. Is there a way to preserve the colonial architecture for modern day usage?

Some more Guatemalan mountains

Some more Guatemalan mountains

Active volcano spewing out

Active volcano spewing out

zone of steep climbs - after Lago Atitlan

zone of steep climbs – after Lago Atitlan

Within 20Km’s of crossing into Guatemala, the name calling started, ‘hola gringos’, which I have read from others blogs, is quite common in Central America. I was surprised that I was also called ‘gringo’ even when though I was miles away from the two Canadians. However the best mark goes to the two boys who could think differently to call me ‘hola negro’. On the subject of name calling, when I was cycling into Comitan, I heard someone running behind me shouting ‘hey buffalo’. It was the Italian-Canadian couple whom I met in oaxaca. They couldn’t remember my name; I was glad to be called buffalo, better than gringos indeed. They were travelling in a scooter, Vespa, that was made in India. An Italian riding a scooter in central america, which was made in India – this might sound dodgy. They seem to enjoy traveling just like me. They have travelled well, almost 35000 kms around the world with that little vehicle.

Sam crossing the river

Sam crossing the river .

Puncture free ride

I stayed for two more days in Oaxaca city to wait for Eugene’s arrival, whom I cycled with previously in Baja California two months ago. I felt home at Zoe’s place(my Warmshowers host in Oaxaca) so it was not difficult to spend more time in Oaxaca. From Oaxaca City we cycled approximately 525 Km’s to reach San Cristobal de Las Casas in the state of Chipas. It was a delight to ride with no punctures for the whole 7 days, although my seat post rack which was holding my trunk bag, cracked at its neck and broke into two pieces. Luckily, I found a car mechanic who was able to weld the pieces and it seems to hold together so far.

Mountains of Oaxaca

Mountains of Oaxaca

elevation profile: Oaxaca to San Cristobal

Elevation profile: Oaxaca to San Cristobal

Mescal production

Mescal production – a local alcoholic beverage

The route (Km’s) : Oaxaca city – San Pedro Topolopan (79) – El Coyul (76) – Tehuantepec (95) – Santa Domingo Zanatepec (18 Km’s cycling + 77 Km’s bus) – Cintalapa (103) – Tuxtla Guiterrez (75) – San Cristobal (75). In Topolopan and El Coyul we stayed at The Presidenia (Municipal office) building and in Tehuantepec and Cintalapa we stayed at the local churches. Rest of the places we stayed with Warmshowers hosts.

Canon del sumidero

Canon del sumidero

Accommodation at El Coyul

Accommodation at El Coyul

accommodation at San Pedro Topolopan

Accommodation at San Pedro Topolopan

 

Oaxaca and Chiapas are known for its mountains and the presence of strong indigenous population. Some of the big climbs and drops seen in the elevation profile for the route between Oaxaca and San Cristobal de Las Casas masks the smaller climbs but my legs does not fail to notice any small climbs. Some days the total ascent were more than 1500 metres and especially the elevation profile graph for the climb from Tuxtla to San Cristobal (400 metres to 2200 metres) is spectacular on paper. A total of 45 km’s of relentless climb which we managed to tackle over a 5 hours period.

Some more mountains of Oaxaca

Some more mountains of Oaxaca

Elevation profile Tuxtla to San Cristobal

Elevation profile Tuxtla to San Cristobal

We were warned about the strong winds near La Ventosa. But we could not resist taking on this challenge. We managed to cycle for about 18 kms, but the wind kept pushing us out of the road, it was coming from 90 degrees angle. It was impossible to ride, so we had to catch a ride to the nearby town Juchitan from where we took to a bus to Santa Domingo Zanatepec. Perhaps the plethora of wind turbines in this area says something. Motor vehicles with trailers are not allowed in this road due to the danger of them getting over turned by heavy wind.

In Tuxtla, we met Roberto through my school contacts Paola and Margarita. Roberto was happy to host us in his Casa Ciclista which was going to be officially open in two weeks time. He was very pleased to have some cyclists in advance. The main attraction in Tuxtla was the Canon del Sumidero, the canyon with its 800 metres walls was majestic. After leaving Tuxtla we cycled to San Cristobal where Roberto’s friend Konny met us and offered four days hotel accommodation el gratis (free). We were delighted by this irresistible offer.

Wind turbines at La Ventosa

Wind turbines at La Ventosa

image

Mountains of Chiapas

My interview for Azteca Chiapas TV

My interview for Azteca Chiapas TV

Eugene at the school in San Juan Cancuc

Eugene at the school in San Juan Cancuc

In Tuxtla, Paola and Edrei had organised a talk at the public library where I was interviewed by three different television channels. It was a pleasant surprised to be greeted by some strangers in San Cristobal who had seen my interview.

In San Cristobal de Las Casas, Eugene and I went to two different schools where we spoke about our bicycle trip to the high school students. In San Juan Cancuc, we spoke at the school, Escuela Secundaria Tecnica No. 77 San Juan Cancuc, where Paola taught English. This school was mainly attended by native students whose first language is Tseltal. Paola translated my speech for them. This school was about 90 minutes drive from the city, nested in the mountains. It was an excellent drive with stunning views. The roads were so windy that I threw-up on both my way up and return journey, perhaps I should have cycled instead of taking a car.

Marissaz organised the second school, where she taught English, called Sentimientos de la Nacion, in the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas an evening school for students of age group 12 to 15 who work during day-time. The students here were very excited to see us. We spent almost four hours in the school, even though our talk only lasted 90 minutes. The news of our visit spread and most of the students in the school wanted to talk to us. It was a great pleasure to answer their questions.

We both were extremely pleased by the reception we had in both the schools.

At the school Sentimientos de la Nacion in San Cristobal

At the school Sentimientos de la Nacion in San Cristobal

I wish to thank Paola, Edrei, Margarita, Roberto, Marissaz, Tuxtla en Bici, Insolente San Cristobal de Las Casas and Konny for the kindness they showed us over the last few days here in Chiapas. These were some of the best days in my trip.

My seat-post rack

The seat post rack that couldn’t take the weight of my trunk bag anymore

 

 

 

Back on the road – Mexico city to Oaxaca city

It was getting dark around 6pm in Mexico city, the clock was moved forward and winter was on its way. It was time to hit the road and move to the southern hemisphere as soon as possible; I am determined to miss the winter this year.

Pyramid of the Sun - Teotihuacan

Pyramid of the Sun – Teotihuacan

View from the pyramid of the moon - Teotihuacan

View from the pyramid of the Moon – Teotihuacan

In Mexico City, I went to visit the magnificent archeological site, Teotihuacan, some pictures included here. During my stay in Mexico city, I met Margarita through a Facebook group who helped me to organise two talks for me. Also, during my three weeks stay, I got my bicycle serviced and it was looking nice and shiny and was ready for the road again. I replaced my chain and cassette that were worn out already. Also during my stay in the big city, I made use of the kitchen and cooked basmati rice everyday for three weeks, 5kgs was consumed in less than three weeks, all by myself!

Leaving Mexico city was lot easier than getting into the city, although I left on a Saturday, early morning to avoid the traffic. There was a short climb and then largely downhill so I expected a nice easy ride. After about 50kms my rear wheel tyre went flat. This happened again after another 10 kms on the same wheel. These repeated punctures should have given me a clue but I was a bit ignorant. I kept using the spare tubes I had. All four of my spare inner tubes have a patch at the same spot. I had some stomach problems and was also tired of the punctures, so I wanted to sleep in a comfortable bed. After about 102 Km’s I arrived at my destination in Cuautla where I stayed in a motel.

At Colegio Alejadro Guillot, Mexico City

At Colegio Alejadro Guillot, Mexico City

Mexico City to Oaxaca City route profil

Mexico City to Oaxaca City route profile

My accommodation at the Presidencia in Tehuitzingo

My accommodation at Presidencia in Tehuitzingo

Of the total 5 days of riding from Mexico City to Oaxaca City, about 480 Kms, I had two punctures every day for four days. Only on the third day I found the culprit, a small metal pin that got stuck in the tyre. I had to turn my tyre inside out to find this, but I was glad that I resolved it. But I also learnt that repeated patching at the same spot requires some greater skills, I was not removing the previous patches completely. Also, cutting one patch into two, since I was running out of puncture patches, did not work for me, the cut edges don’t stick very well and they come undone later. It was very frustrating to have two punctures every day – punctures test your persistence and patience.

some quiet country side road on the mountains

some quiet country side road on the mountains

The tiny pin  that was giving me grief for three day

The tiny pin that was giving me grief for three days

After Cuautla, the road was just a two lane road (one on either side) with no shoulder. But it was great fun cycling on these quiet roads, since there were no bigger cities, traffic was low and the mountains reminded of cycling in the Alps. Especially, on the third day between Huajuapan and Ascuncion Nochixtlan, the red colour soil was beautiful. I read somewhere that an earthquake in this region, sometime back, caused great damage, resulting in bald mountains and also turning the soil inside out. There were also plenty of curves and switchbacks, similar to those in the alps.

There were plenty of uphills and downhills and some of them were more than 10% grade: on the third day I had a total ascent of 2000metres and 1800metres on the fourth day. If you like the mountain stages of Tour de France, this section of Mexico is a must. I cycled at least 10 hours each day, except the last day.

Route: Mexico-Cuautla (102Km’s)-Tehuitzingo (110Km’s)-Huajuapan (105Km’s)-Ascuncion Nochixlan (93Km’s)-Oaxaca city (75Km’s). I stayed in hotels in Cuautla and Huajuapan. In Tehuitzingo and Ascunscion Nochixtlan I stayed in the ‘Presidencia’ – municipal buildings which also has the police station. In general the police seem to treat the tourist very well, although, under the current situation in Mexico I would not extend this praise any further.

Note the Virgin Mary vehicle which leads them

Note the Virgin Mary vehicle which leads them

Near Ascuncion Nochixlan

Near Ascuncion Nochixlan

Local cyclist on a prilgrimage

Local cyclists on a prilgrimage

On the fifth day, there were signs of a good day coming quite early on. Near the cafe, when I was about to leave Ascunsion Nochixtlan, I met a teacher who teaches at an institute nearby. He was very happy to have met a cyclist and wanted to contribute. I accepted his kindness and we took some photos. Along the way, I met a group of cyclists on a pilgrimage to a cathedral somewhere along the coast. They had two support vehicles with plenty of drinks and food which they shared with me, it was good fun pedalling with them until Oaxaca city. I was very pleased to have met some local cyclists whose gear reminded me of the second-hand bicycles I had in Cape Town, after all it’s the spirit that matters not the gear.

Oaxaca City - this could just as well be an European city

Oaxaca City – this could just as well be an European city

Oaxaca city has a very European feel to it and it’s a popular retirement town; plenty of US expats live here. I am currently staying with an excellent Warmshowers host Zoe, who truly loves to meet travellers. I met some of her american friends and also her couchsurfing guests and cooked a curry for them. It was almost like a youth hostel here, a lovely group of travellers and plenty of stories to exchange. Once again, it is going to be hard to leave this comfort zone…

Some typical cathedrals in this area

Some typical cathedrals in this area

From Mexico City

After Guadalajara I detoured a bit to visit Guanajuato and San Miguel Allende, some of the popular tourist destinations in Mexico (route map updated). A total of eight days excluding a rest day at Guanajuato brought me to Mexico city. The whole time I was always above 1500 metres above sea level.The elevation profile says I climbed up to an altitude of 2600 metres at one point. My legs felt the mountainous terrain but there were no switchbacks or cliffs so I didn’t really feel like I was on the mountains. Most of the climbs were gentle but long; I slogged away with lots of patience. I think even a tortoise would get tired after some of those climbs.

At the tourism office in San Juan de Los Lagos

At the tourism office in San Juan de Los Lagos

The grand church at San Juan de Los Lagos

The grand church at San Juan de Los Lagos

In general there are two types of highways in Mexico, a two lane highway that passes through most towns and its free to use. The second one is referred to as ‘cuota’ which is a toll road that contains a shoulder lane. Cycling on this toll road is not prohibited or at least no body told me to get off; all the toll booths waved me through. Whilst it is relatively safer to ride on these cuota roads because of the shoulder lane, the probability of getting punctures was very high. The shredded truck tyres on the side of the road was a silent killer for my tyres. I had punctures on three of the eight days and both, my bicycle wheel and trailer wheel were equally susceptible. It was eight Km’s to my destination, Tepeji, when I had a puncture on my trailer wheel, but I was too tired to fix it, especially after 130 Km’s. Also, it’s no fun fixing punctures on the side of the highway when it is raining. Instead I decided to continue riding to my destination with a flat wheel, alas, one Km to my destination another puncture, on my rear wheel this time. With two of the three wheels flat, this is not fun anymore. I pushed my bike into the town and checked into a hotel without any second thoughts. Both me and my bike needed a shower to remove all the mud. A night of investigation revealed two punctures on the rear wheel and three punctures on the trailer wheel -I too pay a price for these cuota roads.

The towns in the Central part of Mexico seems to have a common theme, a bit of ‘colonial left overs’ I guess. There is a Cathedral in the centre of the town, stone paved streets and colourful buildings. In addition, Guanajuato town has an interesting networking of tunnels and narrow streets in the centre of the town although the roads were paved with bigger rocks than stones. The narrow streets here was packed with tourist because of international festival called ‘Cervantino’. I decided to take a day off here to enjoy some of the events and it was well worth it.

Typical town centre in the central part of Mexico

Typical town centre in the central part of Mexico

image

At a Prepartory school called ‘Prepa Nocturna en Leon’

For those who are interested in the Guadalajara to Mexico cycle route: I stopped at the following towns after leaving Guadalajara (distances in Km’s): Tepatitlan (80) , San Juan de Los Lagos (75), Leon (82), Guanajuato (60), San Miguel de Allende (75), Queretaro (70), Tepeji (135) and then Mexico city (75).

The municipal office in Tepatitlan was pleased to see a cyclists in their town and offered to stay at one of their sports halls. While I was staying

there, a lady was so impressed with my travel story that she wanted to contribute and insisted on accepting a 50 pesos note – all this with my broken spanish. The next day was even more interesting. The tourist police in San Juan de Los Lagos were very curious and happy to see a cyclist and when they were about to take me to a church to find a place to sleep Alfredo from the Delegado the Regional Tourismo office spotted me. Alfredo spoke to a local hotel and booked a free place for me to sleep comfortably. I wish my spanish was better to thank them adequately, but language is not a barrier to acknowledge kindness, I think body language can help.

My Warmshowers host Fernando in Leon was a chemistry teacher at the school called Escuela de Nivel Medio Superior Centro Histórico León in short ‘Prepa Nocturna en Leon’. Fernando gave me an opportunity to talk to his Prepa students (Grade 12/ A levels) for two hours which went above my expectations.

Tunnels and the network or road underground the city centre in Guanajuato

Tunnels and the network of underground roads in the city centre in Guanajuato

Accommodation at a sports hall in Tepatitlan

Accommodation at a sports hall in Tepatitlan

The students were thrilled and happy to hear from me. It was a great pleasure to answer all their questions about my trip and also above careers in biotechnology/chemical engineering. I am hoping to give similar talks in some schools in Mexico City too.

on route to San Miguel de Allende

Close to San Miguel de Allende

View of San Miguel de Allende

View of San Miguel de Allende

Mexico city - altitude 2240 metres

Mexico City – altitude 2240 metres

Mexico City Centre

Mexico City Centre

Cycling into Mexico City was an adventure that I don’t wish to repeat. I took the main roads as shown in the Google map, some of them were 7 lanes on either side. I had to hold my breath when crossing some of the exits from these big roads. However, for a city of 20 million people, Mexico City has lot of tree lined streets and parks and cycling within Mexico City is no more difficult than cycling in Central London.

After arriving in Mexico city, I went to the local Hare Krishna (ISKON) temple to find out about Diwali celebrations. I was invited for the Govardan pooja to be followed by free food. It was a Friday evening and I was new to the city and had nothing else to do. I decided to take this offer and what followed was a great evening with tons of excellent free food and good music.

Whilst I was there I could not resist analysing and the following is a summary of my thoughts. There were more than 150 people and most of them dressed in traditional clothes although none of them were from India. Their chants and music were no different if not better, to what I have seen in India. It was interesting to note the extent to which some of the Mexicans have embraced Hare Krishna. I will post a short video of the evening here. Also, I felt there were some similarities to what I might see in a night club. If you watch the video you will note that some of the youth were having great fun just like in a dance club elsewhere. Whilst some might object to this comparison on the grounds of morality, I think, at the biological level, the brain cells are intoxicated in both these situations.

I was pleased that some of the Mexicans have chosen ISKON, certainly for the lovely authentic indian food that they fed me. Thanks to the ISKON centre in Mexico City, I had a great evening and a lovely Diwali.

I am renting a room in an apartment in Mexico city for three weeks just for a change from the ‘nomadic’ life. After three weeks rest here I will continue south and there is at least another 1500 Km’s to ride before I can cross the border of Mexico into Gautemala.

 

To Guadalajara

‘Progress’ will be the optimistic description and ‘bike problems’ will be the pessimistic description of my last two weeks. I prefer the former.

Eugene and I took the first available ferry after the Hurricane from La Paz and came to Mazatlan on the Friday, 26th September. Eugene wanted to take a break from cycling and decided to stop at Mazatlan for a month. It was great to have his company; all the daily chores such as finding a place to sleep, cooking was a lot easier and also it was great to have someone just to talk to at the end of a long day. On the other hand, I am learning spanish lot faster in his absence. Eugene and I got along very well and had a great time and we hope to cycle together at some point in future. After saying adios to Eugene I went to find a place to sleep in Mazatlan where I stayed just one night and then continued towards Guadalajara.

view of Mazatlan from the ferry

view of Mazatlan from the ferry

Some statistics: I cycled a total of approximately 360 Kms after leaving La Paz to arrive in Guadalajara, the second biggest city in Mexico. The first day was 70 kms to El Rosario, followed by 90 to Acaponeta, 75 to Ruiz, 70 to Tepic and 77 (+125 in an autobus!) to Guadalajara. I stayed at the church in El Rosario and Acaponeta and in a cheaper hotel in Ruiz. In Tepic I stayed for two nights with Gabriela, a Warmshowers host, who fed me like my mother would!

How nice to see water after being in Baja!

How nice to see water after being in Baja!

There were no big hills for the first three days. but the scenery changed; shrubs became trees, rivers were full, hills became mountains, temperature started to decrease and everything was green – I was getting into more tropical landscape. Tepic was at an altitude of 900m

etres approximately, I was hoping for an alpine style climb. I was a bit disappointed when the climb to Tepic was an epic 30 Kms of gradual climb with no switchbacks. However, I was pleased that I was able to do this ascent sitting on the saddle even though I took three and half hours for the last 32 Kms.

Acaponeta town centre

Acaponeta town centre

Some spectacular sunrise  - requires better camera perhaps

Some spectacular sunrise – requires better camera perhaps

The highways and most of the roads were good, at least so far, except in town centres and big cities. My bike was doing good expect for a puncture on my trailer wheel just 20 Kms out of Mazatlan, that too three punctures on the same tube – how did that happen?

On leaving Tepic, after about 25 Kms, one of my rear wheel spokes snapped. Guadalajara was only two days away so I ignored this and carried on. I did the biggest climb of the day including a brilliant 10kms downhill ride and stopped for a well earned snack break after about 77 Kms. I heard a big bang and my bike was on its belly; parking my bike with the kickstand is more an art than the science of balancing. I did not know that the rear derailleur hanger had cracked and when I started pedalling again, the derailleur got bent and caught the spokes. My bike won’t move – serious damage. I got off the bike, loosened the derailleur and decided to push my bike to the next town. Pushing the bike felt harder than normal. My rear wheel got buckled and the tyre was rubbing against the frame. Oh dear, time to see a bike doctor definitely. My attempts to hitch hike was futile because I was on the side of highway without much room for anyone to stop. I decided to push my bike for 2 Kms until the town of Ixtlan del rio where a police patrol vehicle offered to lift me and my bike to the nearest bus station. What followed was the easiest 125 Kms travel to Guadalajara.

There is no better place than to arrive at the Casa de Ciclistas (CC) in Guadalajara, with a broken bike. The love and care for both me and my bike was unparalleled. CC is a non-profit organisation run by volunteers which includes a bike workshop and a place for bike tourists to crash. It’s also a hangout area for the local cyclists. On my arrival it was time to spice up the CC. I made some vegetable curry and rice one day. To my delight and surprise many of them ate the curry and rice with their fingers, the traditional way to eat in India. I met Bernado and Magui whose collection of spices in their kitchen would put some modern tamil families to shame. Bernardo is an excellent bike mechanic and so we had something to trade. He fixed my bike and I made some curry for them; Magui would not let me out of the house without writing out the recipe for the curries I made.

The happy family at Casa de Ciclistas Guadalajara

The happy family at the Casa de Ciclistas, Guadalajara

they know how to eat it

they know how to eat it

finger licking good perhaps?

finger licking good perhaps?

I also had an opportunity to meet some expats here, Miss K was one of them who teaches in a local school. I am grateful to Miss K for organising a visit to her school. I spent a full day at her school; Colegio Mexico Irlandes. I spoke to  five  different classes about my bike  trip (motivational speech?) and also careers in Chemical Engineering. It was great fun sharing some of my experience with them. I think the feedback I received from Miss K the next day summarises it all: ”you were great, the kids couldn’t stop talking about how cool you are”. One of the pupils said to me ‘I would like to do a similar trip but by walk’. It felt so good to hear this. I liked how they pronounced my name Baalaaa, and they would not stop wishing me good luck until I left the school gate. It was good to be back at a school!

Title of my talk at Colegio Mexico Irlandes in Guadalajara

Title of my talk at the Colegio Mexico Irlandes in Guadalajara

My interview by the Norwegian travel TV is out now and can be found on this link: http://www.vgtv.no/#!/video/101384/best-og-verst-fra-hollywood-episode-43. My segment appears around 5 minutes. I would like to thank Andreas (http://instagram.com/ilebek_ ) and Merete for this opportunity and also giving me permission to post this link here.

The kindness of strangers continues. The owner of the Hotel San Mario in Mazatlan was happy to hear my travel story and offered to stay there for free, a nice air conditioned room with TV. While I was on the highway, after Tepic, a Mexican family of four stopped and were taking pictures. When I got closer to them, they stopped me to ask for my trip details. Some more photoshoot followed and they gave me 50 pesos, a can of lovely, ice cold chocolate drink and some aqua – The carreterra (freeway) is full of surprises. The excitement I notice in the eyes of some of these people will keep me going.

I got my bike fixed here and have also made a ton of friends here in Guadalajara, almost everyone says I am welcome back here anytime. I don’t know when I will be able to take up that offer, for now, the road is calling…

My travel story from the beginning, i.e. Madras

My travel story from the beginning, i.e. Madras

very keen and amazing audience!

very keen and amazing audience!

Q&A session

Q&A session

Baja (South), Mexico

Near Puerte Escundido

Near Puerte Escundido

Mission accomplished, that’s how we both felt when we arrived in La Paz, Mexico. It was a tough ride because of the wrong season to cycle, I guess. The heat and hurricanes tested our determination, but we persisted, ignoring some suggestions to skip some parts by taking a bus. We got used to the scenery and it did not impress us anymore. The last few days we cycled merely to get through. When we were cycling in the dark at 5am, I was almost falling asleep in some places, long straight roads were monotonous and boring. Notably, for about 50 Km’s (!) after Ciudad Constitution, the road was just straight as a ruler.

From Guerrero Negro, a total of 9 days of cycling brought us to La Paz where we end our cycling in Baja and will take a ferry to the mainland Mexico (route map updated)

Campground in San Ignacio

Campground in San Ignacio

The early morning cycling between 5 and 11am worked well and it was main the reason behind our success I think. After leaving Guerrero Negro we cycled through a dry desert for about 75 Km’s to arrive in Vizcaino, where we met Padre Hugo, who helped us find accommodation for two more nights elsewhere along our route. From Vizcaino we had an easy ride to San Ignacio, an oasis in the desert. It was truly a gift of nature to be able to swim in fresh water in the hot sun. It was not difficult to spend a few hours in the water.

Eugene in front of the mission in San Ignacio

Eugene in front of the mission in San Ignacio

What are the chances of meeting some one, half-way around the world, who grew up just 2 Km’s away. It seems pretty higher than winning Euro Lottery. I met Jeyatha and Vasanth in San Ignacio, who were living in Canada and driving and hiking around in Baja. It was a delight to taste dosa in the desert and that too made using home-made batter. I salute Jeyatha for travelling with this home -made batter all the way from Canada (crossing the US customs!). Eugene and I enjoyed this delicacy and on top of it, they also gave me some home made garam masala for future use.

After leaving San I

gnacio we cycled 75 Km’s to reach the town of Santa Rosalio and then the following day we cycled about 93 Km’s and camped at Coyote beach. There was no time to rest when we arrived here at mid-day, we went straight to the sea to cool down, it was a sweltering 40 plus degrees Celcius. There were few beaches in the neighbourhood and all of them fantastic, except for the heat. On the fifth day we cycled 107 Km’s to Loreto, another sea side town where we had planned to take a day off. We stayed here with Sandra and Eduardo. The break was justified considering five days of cycling in the heat and waking up at 4am everyday.

Little we knew that this break will extend to five days. Hurricane Odile was on its way and I am glad we heeded to the advice of our hosts. The roads had to be cleared before we could continue and so our stay had to be extended. We were lucky to be stranded at Loreto. Sandra and Eduardo took care of us so well and we were soon part of the family. There was no running water (other than the one from the sky), no internet, no cell phone service, no telephone service and no electricity – went back to dark ages almost. The electricity supply was restored but nothing else until we left. The situation was worse elsewhere in places, like La Paz, where military had to be called in to stop people from looting.

Eduardo, Eugene, Sandra and me

Eduardo, Eugene, Sandra and me

Oasis in the desert landscape

San Ignacio – Oasis in the desert

Delicious Dosa by Jeyatha and Vasanth

Delicious Dosa by Jayetha and Vasanth

From Loreto it took us four days to reach La Paz, 25 Km’s to Puerte Escundido, followed by 124 Km’s to Ciudad Constitution, 96 Km’s to Los Positas, 112 Km’s to La Paz. We either camped or stayed in the church most of the places. At Santa Rosalia and Los Positas we slept in the premises of the church and at Ciudad Constitution we stayed with the family of Padre Hugo. We camped at Hotel Tripui in Puerto Escundido, Coyote beach near Mulege and San Ignacio. For future travellers who might like a bit of luxury, there were hotels in all the towns

Aftermath of hurricane Odile

Aftermath of hurricane Odile

we stayed.

When we arrived in La Paz, some parts still did not have electricity and running water. Hurricane Odile was quite intense here we were told. Luckily, we are staying with a Friend of Eugene’s where we have all amenities

This explains the lack of electricity

This explains the lack of electricity

. The ferry service has been cancelled until further notice. We are not complaining about this, rather enjoying another extended break. Since leaving San Diego, Eugene and I have cycled 1546 Km’s together and I have a total of 6986 Km’s on my legs so far in this trip.

Cleanup after hurricane Odile

Clean-up after hurricane Odile

Eugene and I have been cooking curry for dinner almost everyday. I trained Eugene to make egg curry and fish curry and we even made a video of this (video below). I hope this will be useful to some of my friends and hosts who have tasted my curries and wanted to make it for themselves. Please send me an email if you have any questions.

PS: I wish to thank all those who email me or write comments here, it motivates me to keep pedalling. I take note of it all even though I may not have replied to each due to intermittent internet connection.

 

Baja Peninsula (North), Mexico

Baja peninsula is known for its vastness and dry conditions. I will include some details of the towns and my route for future travellers. After crossing the border, I spent the first two nights in Rosarito where I made a plan for my ride in the Baja Peninsula. Ensenada was my first stop which is about 80 Km’s away. I spent two nights here with Jorge’s family whose hospitality is some of the best I have received.

Typical landscape in this part of the world

Typical landscape in this part of the world

Towards San Vicente

Towards San Vicente

Some cactus near Catavina

Some cactus near Catavina

The highway 1 in Baja is the only big road for the next 1000 Kilometres. There are no campgrounds for most part and one has to be a bit creative in finding a place to stay. Moreover facilities such as grocery stores are far and few between.

Camping under the bridge

Camping under the bridge

Accommodation at Catavina

Accommodation at Catavina

After leaving San Diego I have been cycling with Eugene from Montreal, Canada.

Long stretches of unending road

Long stretches of unending road

It’s good to have company in a place where I don’t know the language either. However if my Spanish skills are that of a one month old baby Eugene’s is that of a 3 months old baby.

After leaving Ensenada we cycled 6 days to reach Guerrero Negro which is the first town in Baja South when you travel from the north.

The first day we cycled 97 Km’s to San Vicente. There were few hills one was notably high and we tackled this at 1pm, very very hot . We stopped for lunch at St. Tomas which had a swimming pool, grocery store and a campground.

Sunrise

Sunrise

A few kilometres after this town we stopped to have some water melon. This stop was irresistible considering the heat. The lady did not want to charge but I insisted to pay since she was noticeably poor. I was taken back by her generosity considering her economic background. As we were approaching San Vicente a Canadian group of 3 stopped us to give water and 10 dollars (USD) each! Their son had cycled from Argentina to Alaska and they knew all about cycle touring. In San Vicente the Catholic Church in the town offered us a nice place to stay. We experienced so much kindness and all on the same day.

If anything, the previous day experience taught us not to cycle between 1230 and 5 pm, since the heat is blistering to say the least and the hot air only adds to it. The next day the alarm went off at 4am and we started cycling at 5am. This strategy worked; we reached our destination San Quintin at 1130am and we had the rest of the day to just chill. For the following day we had a different strategy. We cycled from 9am to 1230, covering a distance of 60 Km’s and reached the town of Rosario where we stopped for lunch. There was a lovely park where Eugene was playing guitar while I went to the library next door to use their computer. We left Rosario at 6 pm to cycle another 20 Km’s and camped under a bridge (see the picture). The road was quiet and there were no houses for several kilometres on either side, but neither of us could go to sleep until 11pm since this was our first experience of wild camping in Mexico. We were a bit concerned about criminals, animals, and every possible danger I guess. Anyways, we both wanted to try several styles of camping and it’s best done in the company of at least one other person I guess. The next one was a bit interesting.

We woke up under the bridge at 4am again and started pedalling at 5am. The early morning ride has it’s incentives; the view of sun rising from behind the mountains, quieter roads and cooler weather. As we head inland the scenery changed dramatically tall cactus plants was the only vegetation, if any, to be seen here.

When we arrived at Catavina (104 Km’s from the bridge) we went to ask at the police station for camping. One of the officer said we can sleep in the jail since it was empty, that would be a bit desperate! He saw our face and offered us an alternative, to stay in the mini dispensary (clinic) next door. From Catavina we cycled 117 Km’s to the town Puente Prieste where we camped next to a 24 hrs restaurant. The temperature was 35 degree Celsius when we arrived here at 1130, but it felt like 40 plus. The heat must have been so intense for someone who grew up in Madras to complaint. The section between Rosario and Puente Prieste does not have much services and I recommend carrying enough water if cycling this section in summer. There is no shade to hide either so cyclists need to be prepared.

From Puente Prieste we cycled 120 Km’s to the town Guerrero Negro. This section is mostly flat and is meant to be relatively easy compared to the previous days. We arrived in Ville Jesus Maria at 1025 am and this town was just 20 Km’s away from our destination. We were happy, but not for long. When we left this town we had to tackle heavy sand storm (video posted here). At one point I lost balance and the storm threw me off my bike. But no harm done, I continued pedalling. Every passing truck sand blasted us and brought more misery. The sand particles hit my skin like bullets from a machine gun. It took about 2.30 hours to get through this 20 kilometres of flat road. After arriving I learnt that we have been cycling hurricane Norbert! Anything that did not kill me is an experience to remember.