I wasn’t going to have a day off in Jalpan, when I decided I would I wasn’t going to spend any of the time writing, but the last six days riding have been superb so I simply can’t resist. There is also the fact that buried deep in the Sierra Gorda at the end of May it is stifling out so retiring to a shady internet cafe is worth the 2 pesos an hour just for the temperature relief. Although only halfway through this latest leg of the tour, one that will eventually drop me into Mexico City, it is already turning out to be a gem. I had no expectations other than knowing the Sierra Gorda was supposed to be something special and with a freshly clear head the adventuring spirit has really overtaken me again.
I stayed longer in Zacatecas than planned so that I could be assured of watching the Blackpool match on a television and not having to rely on a temperamental internet broadcast. The days of waiting were at time tedious but the morning of the match was extremely exciting. Unfortunately results didn’t go my way, leaving me hollow and depressed. Blackpool’s run in the Premier League is over and with it an exciting side story that will forever be bound up with what has been the most thrilling year of my life to date. Despite the occasional exuberance there is no doubt that supporting a football team is an emotional investment that can at times leave you out-of-pocket. The season is over and I am free not to care anymore. Just one piece in the jigsaw that has cleared my head and brought my focus back to the immediate concerns of route, food and water.
After a thorough inspection of Shermys cracked rear rim in Zacatecas I concluded that she could take some rougher roads and I was free to go wherever I pleased. Also, spending time in such a safe and friendly city as Zacatecas had allowed me to forget the tensions and violent crime related fears that are all too real in the northern part of the country. I never saw any of it, had only positive experiences and met friendly people, but it is a fact that the states I had just pedaled through namely Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango are dangerous and have suffered more than their fair share of drug related decapitations. I knew what I was doing and am street wise enough not to have any real concern for my safety but nevertheless it isn’t that easy to shake the feeling, as hyped by the global media, that you’re playing with fire by being there. Now this issue is forgotten, I am entirely comfortable in this vast and impressive Republic and happy to venture anywhere safe in the knowledge that I am becoming increasingly able to communicate and appreciate without the fog of fear.
My current bible is the ‘Guia Roja 2011: Por las Carreteras de Mexico’ aka Mexican Road Atlas. This shows me most roads and by colour and thickness of line has a shot at describing just what type of roads they are. My first task after leaving Zacatecas was to plot a course through the maze of yellow lines between there and San Luis Potosi, about 200kms away, east and a bit south as the crow flies. Yellow lines are good because they’re not major roads, essentially rural roads of various types that join the dots of small towns and villages. These roads spread through the area like cracks in safety glass providing options and excitement, playing the lottery that is the way of the road atlas. The map gives only an indication of whats actually there, leaving knowledge of road surface and undulation to an imagination fueled by deductions based on experience and the shape of the roads. I use the map as a starting point and then have locals fill in the gaps and help make the decisions.
Three days and 176 miles out of Zacatecas had me in El Gogorron National Park, south of the city of San Luis Potosi. I’d ventured through vast agricultural lands, countless small towns and villages (only a couple of which felt threatening) and along all manner of roads to get there. The area in and around the park is pretty and refreshingly (after the relative flatness of the course out from Zacatecas) hilly. The National Park itself was a nothing, surely offering something to the hiker but with no signs or indication from the road I passed through without noticing anything out of the ordinary. The passing scenery was nice but what I really noticed was an epic increase in the amount of rubbish dumped by the road, surpassing even its usual impressive proportions. Where as the staple trash in the US and Canada is beer bottles and cans, in Mexico its disposable nappies and plastic bottles (many containing a yellowish liquid I assume to be apple juice).
Riding out of El Gogorron I forged north up through Villa Zaragoza (where the people really thought I was odd) to highway Mexico 70, that would take me east to Rio Verde, the connection with Mexico 69 and drop south into the Reserva de la Biosfera Seirra Gorda. I had left the state of Zacatecas and entered that of San Luis Potosi on a rural road connecting the small towns of Pino Suarez and Mezquital. Interesting only in that a local man in Suarez had assured me the road was newly paved all the way, the reality was that it reverted to the dirt I had been expecting right on the state boundary. I find it humorous how many locals will neglect certain ‘details’ when they point me in a direction.
Once on Mexico 70 I had left the minor roads behind and was once again in the land of lorries and buses, all which incidentally give me good grace and frequent waves and honks. The Mexicans ability to drive was another cog in the anti Mexican propaganda machine that drilled its way into my head in the US. Granted I got clipped in Baja but otherwise I see no difference in the way people act in their vehicles down here to how they do further north. Far too many people drink and drive down here but they do in the US too, leaving the only major difference being the Mexicans incredible ability to pollute. My first task on 70 was a 1,500 foot climb to over 8,000 feet. I thought it was hot and with no shoulder in the road I was treated to lung fulls of toxic exhaust as out of shape trucks and lorries belched their way up the slopes.
Crawling up hill into a stubborn yet cooling head wind I was relieved to see green trees appear and the temperature drop a comforting couple of degrees. I was riding through the beautiful Valle de los Fantasmas where small mountains push their tree saturated green slopes up through hazy heat, punctuated by rocky outcrops and cleared fields that in higher parts remind me of dear old England. I was riding with a smile as the climb peaked and I descended down freshly laid windy mountain roads. The smile soon turned to concern as I went down and down and down and down. I knew I’d have to lose height eventually as Jalpan in the Sierra Gorda is only at about 2,500 feet but wasn’t expecting to do so so quickly. I was not concerned for the altitude I’d have to regain, my worry was that things became hotter and hotter the lower I went. By the end of the day I think I’d lost about 3,500 feet and gained more than a few degrees temperature… Mexican men down here actually wear shorts!
With the drop in altitude I have left the scabby nose of dry height behind and plunged into a world of heat, greenery and would you believe it… water! The last couple of days the stream beds that have been dry for months now flow with a trickle or hold a stagnant pool. It was yesterday however that my dreams came true and I met with Rio Santa Maria and fresh flowing clear water. Having pushed on the day before to clear the 8,000 mile mark since Prudhoe Bay and 300 miles from Zacatecas, I had only 3 miles before entering the Reserva de la Biosfera Seirra Gorda and with it my ninth Mexican state, Queretaro. It wasn’t long before I was once again submerged in a world of stunning beauty. With mountains and canyons covered in greenery interspersed with jutting cliff faces, this land reminded me slightly of the Copper Canyon. But here the valleys are not so deep that you’re robbed of the layers of humped and soaring topography that stretches off over the horizon. I’m sure it’s even more stunning at other times of year. At the end of May it is so hot that everything is really hazy and decent photography therefore largely impossible.
According to the hunk of crap I lug around with ‘Lonely Planet’ printed on the front, the Biosphere Reserves of Mexico are a conservation strategy that seeks to ‘blend sustainable human use with natural area protection’. This means that the Sierra Gorda is 90% privately owned and very different to US National Parks. The communities of the area appear to have invested in the concept and it is they who spearhead much of the conservation work that is carried out in the reserve. Although I’m not in a position to judge sustainability and conservation, I can pass comment on appearance and attitude. And this reserve is extremely well-kept; there are many signs warning against littering which for once in Mexico seem to be working, the villages are mostly picturesque and blessed with bursts of colourful foliage and the people all too aware of the value of tourism. I’m here over a weekend and I’m sure many of the cars I’ve seen are up from the Mexico City for a break (the license plates give it away).
I have mentioned the heat and now I shall dwell on it for it is shaping my entire existence at the moment. It’s hot, constantly around the mid 30’s Celsius and even hotter now I’ve descended. When the wind stops the heat is punishing and when it blows its deluding. The water gets sucked out of my body so quickly it doesn’t get a chance to lay in my clothes… my shirt is seldom wet yet creased with starchy salt stains. I expected it to be hot, May in this part of Mexico is the hottest month of the year and this year is turning out to be a particularly dry one. Like riding down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver in December, you get what you deserve in terms of weather, however, when every Mexican I talk to mentions how darn hot it is you have to start admitting that maybe it is. I know my wallet has certainly noticed the incredible amount I’m now spending on drinks.
Some days at higher altitude I could cycle through the day with only an hours shady stop for lunch and even these days I’d finish up spent and dehydrated. Now this is simply not an option. Yesterday for example I was under cover by 11:30 am because of the heat and stayed there until 16:00. Fortunately I was in a shady swimming hole in the sierra town of Conca but it was still 39 degrees Celsius in the shade! Resuming cycling at 4pm was too early as by 5pm I was close to over heating. With hills to climb in heat that hits the high 40’s Celsius on hot black-top unshaded, things can easily get dangerous. A tell-tale cold shivering in my skull was the first sign I was overheating and unable to physically consume more water than I was, I had to rest again. I’d cycle then rest and cool in a pattern that by 7pm had me in a temperature I could deal with. The 30 miles that face me out of Jalpan tomorrow will have me climbing from 2,500 feet up to 8,850 feet so it’ll have to be an Alpine start if there’s any chance of doing it in a day.
Thanks to Tomas, my Mexican room-mate in Zacatecas who taught me how to say in Spanish that I am riding my bicycle from Alaska to Argentina and how long it’s all taking, I’ve suddenly started getting reactions out of people. With the power of language I am no longer just another weird gringo in tight shorts on a bike with too much stuff, now I’m interesting and have been receiving gifts of fruit and cold water as a result. Maybe the more Spanish I learn the greater the rewards will be… it did pretty well in the US and Canada where most people understood me. This has combined with the increased safety I mentioned before in bringing me back to the pure essence of adventuring spirit. I have traveled far enough down Mexico that its size no longer intimidates me, have things lined up in the near future for Mexico City and Oaxaca and can’t wait to get to the great stuff of the Yucatan. I feel freer than I have for a long while and extremely positive about marvelous Mexico. Now if only things would cool down a bit and how about a bit of rain?