Bogota to Cali: In search of a good coffee

There were plenty of reasons to take a break from cycling in Bogota and the five weeks was well spent visiting local sites, schools for talks and riding in the Ciclovia every Sunday. About 121 Kms of the roads were closed on the Sunday mornings in Bogota for people to ride, skate, roller blade, run and do all sorts of acrobatics on the road. It was great to see lots of people out on the road and business was brisk too: fresh fruit juice stalls, local food, bike mechanics, second hand book sellers and just about any thing people can sell; a good opportunity for independent and small businesses. Also, I visited the fantastic gold museum and the church on the top of the Cerro de Monsserate in Bogota.

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The kindness that shocked me

The kindness that shocked me

At the gold museum in Bogota

At the gold museum in Bogota

Train to Cerro de Monserrate

Train to Cerro de Monserrate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the school’s I visited, Colegio IED Miguel Antonio Caro, Bogota, asked me to visit again to talk to more students in their school and I happily obliged. Although, the subject of my talk was the same, I found it interesting in spite of repeating it several times since it was always pupil led in the form of Q and A. Pupils surprise me with some difficult questions for example, “what is the one thing that is most important in your life; do you believe in God”. Something remarkable happened at the end of one of the sessions. A boy approximately 11 years old came up to me and gave some money. I was shocked and did not know whether to accept or reject. I spoke to him for few minutes and decided to accept it in the end. I believe he was very touched by my story. Although this sort of kindness from strangers had happened in the past I was absolutely shocked this time especially considering his age and poor neighbourhood where the school was located. I was beyond words and almost had tears in my eyes and all I could do was to capture the moment in a photograph. My time in Bogota was well spent, getting my bicycle serviced and restoring my energy. I ate homemade curry almost everyday and that too with basmati rice – I was happy.

I felt the itch to get back on my back within few weeks and when the day arrived, I had severe flu the night before so I had to delay my departure by about a week. Meanwhile I was looking forward to one of the climbs called La Linea which was the near perfect equilateral triangle you see in the route profile photo here. This climb is well known among road cyclists in colombia, the second toughest in the country. Climbing to an altitude of 3280 metres the last few 10 kms were greater than 10% gradient.

Bogota to Cali route profile

Bogota to Cali route profile

Ciclovia in Bogota

Ciclovia in Bogota

Much needed space on the road during the downhill ride

Dual carriageway: Much needed space on the road during the downhill ride

The road from Bogota to Girardot had a lovely shoulder lane which makes the downhill ride (about 2700 to 300 metres) more fun and the fantastic lush green mountains was a feast for the eyes. I did this stretch of 140 Kms over two days. The ascent that followed, to the top of La Linea had to be tackled over three days. From Girardot to Ibague was a gentle climb, approximately 700 metres altitude gain. In Ibague my Warmshowers host Logan met me in a panaderia and we stayed at his sister’s place. Logan was preparing for a bike ride around South America which he plans to start in June this year. He was excited to receive me and he had all the same questions that I had before my start. Having been in same situation before i started this trip, I could feel his excitement. As a training exercise he wanted to ride with me to Armenia and back, basically the triangle part of the route profile from both sides as if it was not challenging enough to do it from just one side. From Ibague we rode together to Cajamarca about 32 Kms away gaining an altitude of 700 metres with some big undulations. The town of Cajamarca was just a small patch of flat land flanked by big mountains. Every street in Cajamarca led to a mountain. Logan and I stayed at his parents place in Cajamarca and the day to tackle La Linea arrived with rain. Logan’s mom did not wanted us to leave, she was sweet but we knew weather can’t stop us. A distance of 24 Kms to the top was done with lots of huffing and puffing; One of the toughest climbs I have done so far. The rain kept us cooler the whole way. As if by magic, once on the top of the climb, all the suffering was forgotten in an instant. At the end of the downhill on the other side we split. Logan went to Aremenia to stay with his friend while I went to Calarca to stay with my next Warmshowers host. After such a tough day Logan was going to climb the mountain the next day from the other side to be back at Cajamarca; respect!

Downhill ride from Bogota

Downhill ride from Bogota

Cajamarca

Cajamarca

Climbing La Linea in the rain

Climbing La Linea in the rain

View from the top of La Linea

View from the top of La Linea

Logan on top of La Linea

Logan on top of La Linea

Calarca and Armenia from the top

Calarca and Armenia from the top

From Calarca it was almost flat until Cali. From Calarca to Buga was about 112 Kms. Buga to Cali saw me ride at 25 kmph and I was pleased to be on my road bike for some brilliant countryside riding. The climax was not good though. Just about a km away from the hostel where I was going to stay in Cali I had a puncture on my trailer wheel. I was not happy to discover the big nail in my trailer wheel and about 6 holes in the tube. With no more patches left, I had to push my bike for the last kilometre.

Coffee. Armenia in Colombia is part of the coffee region and this was a good reason to visit this place. I enjoyed colombian coffee in London for several years. I was expecting to enjoy good coffee here in its homeland. But logical reasons does not work always perhaps. After having been in Colombia for two months, 7 out of 10 times my coffee experience was below satisfactory and coffee connoisseurs know bad coffee is worse than no coffee. I tried coffee in all sorts of places. The local coffee called tinto was prepared using a local made machine which looked the same everywhere. However, the quality of the coffee that comes out was not consistent, dilute and sometimes cold. Coffee con leche was even worse. Nevertheless I kept trying at every possible opportunity; perhaps I am addicted to coffee. I figured out how to request for a good coffee (in Spanish) in the last few days, although people frown upon my request often and will oblige hesitantly. Perhaps good coffee is produced but not made here in Colombia!

My time in Colombia is coming to an end. I have just over 10 days before my 90 days visa runs out and also I wish to move on to Ecuador too. I have another 3000 metres mountain to climb over. With the clock ticking this climb is promising to be interesting.

The route (468 Kms): Bogota – Fusagasuga (68) – Girardot (80) – Ibague (54) – Cajamara (32) – Calarca (51) – Buga (112) – Cali (71)

 

 

 

Colombia: Shifting from Central Andes to Eastern Andes

The Colombian Andes has three branches. Medellin is in the Central Andes and Bogota is in the Eastern Andes. There were several mountains to descend and ascend to shift from one range to another which makes it all the more interesting: shifting gear is a lot smoother. From Medellin I had to descend to the plains, where Rio Claro was situated and then climb back up to Bogota city which was at an altitude of 2700 metres.

Medellin from the top

Medellin from the top

Some downhill after Medellin

Some downhill after Medellin

After spending 10 days in Medellin visiting some schools and universities for motivational talks, apart from typical tourist sites, leaving Medellin felt a bit difficult on several counts: the pleasant weather, green neighbourhood with lovely parks and walkways and the lovely people who stayed at the hostel. To top this, the first 10 kilometres of the road leaving medellin was extremely steep, climbing to an altitude of 2600 metres from 1600 metres. It was a well known training route for the local cyclists with each kilometre signposted like some of the climbs in the alps. Even after an hour of cycling I had barely left Medellin, just 5 Km’s away and the whole time I could see the city below. For all the hard work I expected to be a lot further. After about 2.5 hours I managed to get to the top from where it was mostly downhill. I descended on the other side of the mountain to a much lower altitude. I knew Rio Claro was at the bottom of the mountains. So I expected the second day to be a downhill ride all the way. However, I had two big climbs, the first one about 8 Km’s long and the second one 13 Km’s. Perhaps, the mind has some capacity to prepare itself for challenges if it knows what is involved. It felt lot harder to tackle unexpected climbs. It might be arduous and painstakingly slow nevertheless the sense of achievement at the top of the climbs and the views makes up for any ‘little physical pain’.

Rio claro

Rio Claro

The canyon carved by Rio Claro

The canyon carved by Rio Claro

The natural canyon of the Rio Claro formed over millions of years was protected as a nature reserve and moreover in the hands of a private owner, all the profits were reinvested to grow the reserve from 50 hectares initially to 650 hectares currently. There were plenty of things to do such as rafting, caving, rock climbing and canopy tour, although doing nothing in this paradise was also a good option. The opportunity to jump into the river every time it felt hot was a luxury that I did not miss. I camped next to the river and spent 3 nights here. The rafting tour I went along with some other tourists and Colombians was well worth the money. We all jumped into the water several times. I trusted my life jacket more than my swimming skills and enjoyed it to the fullest. I highly recommend visiting Rio Claro.

From Rio Claro to Honda was about 126 Km’s and road was flat as a pan cake. It felt good to be able to ride at 25 kmph consistently for few hours. The local Sunday riders I met on the road bought me some drinks and showed me the way to Honda. Every hotel in Honda advertised its’ swimming pool. The temperature here was 35 plus degree C and it remains the same most of the year apparently. The Hondano Mirador bar which had a swimming pool let me camp in their property. It was too hot inside the tent with the fly sheet on, so I removed it half way through the night to get some fresh air. It was all good until it started to rain heavily at 5 am. That was the end of my night. I had to quickly pack my stuff and tent and leave at 6 am.There were three mountains to climb to reach Bogota. Based on the past experiences I decided to do one mountain a day.

Some plains towards Honda

Some plains towards Honda

The first climb went well, 16 Km’s climb and 16 Km’s descent to the town of Guaduas. I decided to check-in to a hotel to dry all my stuff. Since I arrived a lot earlier, before mid-day, I had a lot of time to wander around the town centre. Guaduas had a nice traditional town centre, a square, stone paved roads and a cathedral in its centre. I had a good pizza (after a long time) and some italian coffee in the town centre, the whole time looking at the giant mountain which stood tall and proud on top of this village. It was exciting to be able to see some of the hairpin bends that awaits me in the mountains.

Climbs again

Climbing in the rain

Carlos with his mother

Carlos with his mother

At I.E.R.D. San Bernard Colegio

At I.E.R.D. San Bernardo Colegio

Spot the climb ahead

Spot the climb ahead

The second climb was not too far but steep enough to make it hard. It was about 10 kilometres followed by a descent to the town of Villeta. The third climb was the worst of all, it was too high (700 metres to 2700 metres over 30 Km’s) and too long to be able to do it in one day, so I continued after Villeta. About 15 Km’s into the climb I stopped at a small road side restaurant for food. Carlos and his mother were happy for me to camp at their property. It was a beautiful site to camp. They both were interested in some indian food. It was a pleasure to cook some chicken curry for them. Carlos was very respectful and was keen for me to visit his school. I accepted his request and went to his school the next day. The school was in the mountains in a beautiful spot. The teachers quickly arranged a computer and projector for a presentation. Speaking in English was not an option since there was no body to translate.What the worst than can happen? I took the courage to speak in Spanish, of course broken spanish with some help. The students helped me with my language at times, and it was a good laugh. They were very respectful and seemed very innocent. I enjoyed visiting this school. Carlos was absolutely thrilled.

When it rains it rains hard here

When it rains it rains hard here

Camping at the restaurant of Carlos and his family

Camping at the restaurant of Carlos and his family

When the rain stops it's fabulous

When the rain stops it’s fabulous

I left the school around 1030 am and continued the third climb. Perhaps the school visit made the day for me. I was only excited to see the climbs ahead of me every time the road opened up. After reaching the top it was amazingly flat all the way to Bogota for about 70 kilometres. Riding into the city centre was not too hard, just some typical challenges of a big city; busy traffic, pot holes, broken bicycle lanes, some impatient and irate drivers.

My warmshowers host, Sebastian Corrales met me in a petrol station and took me to his place. He also helped me to find a place to rent for few weeks where I am at the time of this writing. The plan is to get my bicycle serviced and also visit few schools here in Bogota over the next few weeks.

The route ( total 452 Km’s): Medellin – La Pinella (92) – Rio Claro (65) – Honda (126) – Guaduas (35) – Santa Ines (52) – Facatativa (35) – Bogota (47).

Continental Shift: The Beginning of the Andes

The marshy land mass that connects North America and South America called Darian Gap does not have a road, so I took a ferry from the port of Colon in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. The ferry ride was 17 hours plus 8 hours of immigration and check-in bureaucracy; the rough sea made my stomach turn. In spite of the not so great ferry ride, I was highly excited to land in South America with my bicycle.

Cartagena

Cartagena

Some typical streets in the Centro area of Caragena

Some typical streets in the Centro area of Cartagena

Tropical colours?

Tropical colours?

The Centro area in Cartagena was enclosed by a high rise stone wall. Its colonial architecture and small narrow streets paved with cobble stones was interesting. After a total of 675 Km’s over nine continuous days of cycling I am now in Medellin (at the time of writing), the second largest city in Colombia (route map here).

On my first day, all my excitement to pedal in South America was soon quelled by the nightmare traffic. In addition, there were plenty of motorbikes some of whom are called mototaxis since they function like taxis; they were licensed to carry passengers for a small fee and these guys were a menace when they are on their bikes. However, they were very friendly when they were not riding. When I was on the road most Colombians including pedestrians, cyclists and motorbike riders were curious about my trailer-bike setup and wanted to know where I am from etc. Once outside the city limits of Cartagena, the road was quieter and much more pleasant.

The signs couldn't be any more clearer

The signs couldn’t be any more clearer

The bridge at Valvidia where the ascent begins

The bridge at Valvidia where the ascent begins

For the first five days the road was mostly flat and there were only slight undulations if any. I only cycled 70 or 80 Km’s per day because it was too hot to ride in the afternoons. The large number of fresh fruit juice stalls on the road was a welcoming relief and moreover these were served ice cold. I enjoyed the water melon juice the most, fruits in their native lands are the best I think.

They were intrigued by the camping equipment I had

They were intrigued by the camping equipment I had

On the second day I stayed with a local family who lived next to the gas station. They made a living by washing the trucks and cars. They seemed happy to work any time of the day. The trucks would pull up all through the night but he got out of his bed without complaining. The roof of the house was made of palm leaves and the floor was cement. The house was just a single room and the front ‘open area-living space’, where I slept. This setup reminded me of my younger days. I was very humbled by their friendless.

River Cauca

River Cauca

Water falls on the side of the road were in plenty

Water falls on the side of the road were in plenty

The land scape was not particularly interesting, it was mostly dry until I reached the town of Caucasia from where I cycled next to the river Cauca for two days. Water being the basis of life, made a huge difference. From Caucasia onwards it was lush green with plenty of trees and shade.

In Caucasia I camped out in a restaurant where I met Julian and his brothers. Julian had just finished high school and was waiting for his University studies.  He wanted to know my opinion on some geoengineering technologies to tackle climate change that he had heard of which led to a bit of scientific discussion with him and his brother. I was very impressed by his motivation and the amount of research he had done to learn. His aunt wanted to try some Indian food; I was only too happy to make a chicken curry for them in their restaurant.

On the fourth day one of my rear wheel spokes snapped and the wheel got buckled, I had to undo my brakes in order to be able to wheel it for 7 Km’s to the next town Planeta Rica where the local bike shop fixed it. I was dreading greater damage to my rim which would not be easy to replace here, but luckily it was all fine.

As soon as I crossed the river Cauca in the town of Valvidia, I was on the Andes mountains. From the route profile I expected it to be hard but it was more than that. The next 35 Km’s from the town of Valvidia took me from a elevation of 50 metres to 1990 metres. At the end of every corner the road opened up another vista with another climb. The ascent was non stop for 35 Km’s and at a speed of 6 kilometres per hour I was pedalling hard for almost 6 hours. Andes mountains tested me on the very first day, I saluted and called it a day after 35 Km’s.

More views

More views

These cows were lot more beefier than their compatriots at lower altitude

These cows were lot more beefier than their compatriots at lower altitude

The mountain was still there the next day and after another 10 Km’s climb I reached 2450 metres altitude from where the road descended for 10 kilometres to the town of Yarumal. From Yarumal the road ascended again to 2770 metres over the next 15 Km’s. After about 70 Km’s for the day, I reached the town of Santa Rosa de Osos and stopped for the day. From Santa Rosa de Osos the city of Medellin was 80 Km’s and at lower altitude too. There road was up and down initially but the views were stunning. As soon as I crossed the town of Don Matias, at the top of the pass, was an excellent view point with superb vista. At the bottom of the drop in the valley was the town of Barbosa. Paragliders take advantage of this stunning location. I stopped for a well deserved coffee at the cafe which had a lovely ledge overlooking this valley; the pumping music at the cafe added to my excitement. The next 15 Km’s was all downhill but the narrow roads and the heavy truck traffic called for extra caution. I stopped at two different places along the downhill ride to cool off since the constant use of brakes heated up the wheels.

One of the main objectives of this trip is to cycle in some of the Andes mountains. During the three days in the mountains I heard myself saying several times ‘this is what I am here for’. To live the dream is very satisfying; it was only appropriate to take lots of pictures.As soon as I descended, a three lane highway opened up and led me to the city of Medellin.

Some descent finally

Some descent finally

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

The view from the cliff

The view from the cliff

Paragliding

Paragliding

The route (Km’s): Cartagena – San Cayetano (70) – Ovejas (80) – Sincelejo (40) -Pueblo Nuevo (102)- Caucasia (87) – El Quince (85) – somewhere in the mountain (55) – Santa Rosa de Osos (70) – Medellin (85)

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.

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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

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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

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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.