Easily Charmed By Chiapas

For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here

Fate, more mechanical misery and a marked shift in flora, fauna and culture; back on the road and it feels great. My first night out from the farm, camped up in the beautiful lush Oaxaca mountains, having ridden out some torrential rain and enjoyed scaling an unexpected hill, I sat behind my burning stove and pondered the unadulterated joy that comes from cycle touring. Big sky, pesky insects, the satisfied tingling of physical excursions and a stealthy nights home… my life was back in my own hands. The old routine came easily to me, a homely feeling that I left many weeks ago, before entering Mexico City. I have stammered through the last few months, seriously losing the happy impetus that comes with long periods of riding. There are no regrets for enjoying Mexico and quite the contrary for the distracted joys of having Jens partner me down from Puebla. But the seven days that followed that camp spot reawakening and preceded my time here in San Cristobal de las Casas have been the perfect reintroduction to velo life; the hills came at intervals that suited my scaling fitness, the land bought variation and the societies delivered freshness and an irresistible invite into Central America. There is much to look forward to and even more to appreciate in the present.

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The vegetation rich mountains of Oaxaca state

The riding between Oaxaca and San Cristobal, Chiapas, is not particularly challenging but it is incredibly varied. The most remarkable thing about the 344 miles from Tierra del Sol farm to the domestic comforts of Zofia and Steven’s place in San Cristobal (my current location) was that it delivered me through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow waist of Mexico. At this point I was pretty close to sea level and thus things became a bit hot and sticky. Before that I had enjoyed three days surfing undulations on the drop from about 6,000 feet through the stunning Oaxacan mountains. These initial few days were just what a bike rusty tourist needed; the ascents steadily increased in length, giving the muscles and lungs a great opportunity to regain their former strength. It was akin to interval training, ending with a couple of physically restful days on the low flat roads between Tehuantepec and Tapanatepec. Mentally these flat miles were much tougher as the road lay straight and featureless across a section of sticky humid openness. The route here is bordered by hundreds and hundreds of wind turbines and thus it may come as no surprise that unwelcome headwinds made an appearance. I think I got away comparatively lightly though as the winds were nowhere near as strong as I’ve heard other tourists describe. From the flat the road rises up into the Sierra Madre de Chiapas and into the new and exceptionally interesting state of Chiapas. At about 2,500 feet the landscape opens up and the route speeds quickly towards a descent into Tuxtla Gutierrez (which I bypassed) and then down to 1,300 feet at Chiapa de Corzo from where it snakes up 64km into the mountains, topping out about 8,000 feet before descending into San Cristobal de las Casas.

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Rubbish riding on the 190 through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

The drop in altitude into the Isthmus brings with it the unavoidable realisation that you’re in a tropical environment. I love cold weather but don’t care so much for the hot and humid, it was this that prompted me into leaving the tent in its bag and taking a cheap hotel in Juchitan. Juchitan is a nice enough, although pretty forgettable little town that served my purposes well… a room with a ceiling fan. After a dull and mind numbing trudge through the wind farms I eventually hit on Zanatepec where again I opted for a hotel, this time with air conditioning. For the first time in solo riding I was taking hotel rooms. Maybe I had learn’t something from my time with Jens. These hotels are cheap and more than basic but a really welcome refuge from sweltering nights in the tent. I adore my tent but at this time of year you have to keep both the inner and outer fly shut up due to bugs and rain, a situation that can make things quite unpleasant. It was easy for me to justify to myself the cost of these little forays into a world of comparative luxury. What I didn’t expect was that my run in hotels would stretch to a third night.

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The road passed Tapanatepec into the Sierra Madre de Chiapas

On my fifth day out of Tierra del Sol I left the cool sanctuary of grott that passed for my hotel room in Zanatepec, looking forward to a day of climbing and release from the mind twisting flat road riding. I love a good climb, rejoice in the presence of mountains and knew that with every 1,000 feet of ascent the temperature would become more welcoming to riding and camping. The 14 tedious miles to Tapanatepec flew past under particularly clear skies and a powerful sun. After a brief stop to resupply for the days ahead I made my way out-of-town and onto the 190 towards Tuxtla. Then, just as the first ascent drew closer and my juices started to gargle with excited anticipation for the climb there was an almighty BANG and Shermy ground to an abrupt halt. My rear tire had literally blown out. Slightly stunned I glanced across the road to where a couple of amused sun-ravaged old Mexicans looked on. One pointed to a nearby tree and muttered ‘sombra‘ through his grin. I unloaded, took his advice and got to work under the welcome shelter. I was soon to discover that the force of the blast had blown a kink in my virtually brand new rim and not best pleased when my shoddy spoke tool rounded out a couple of the nipples. One nipple I could replace but the other wouldn’t budge so my attempts to true the rim were severely handicapped. Anyhow, I straightened the rim out put in a brand new Schwalbe tube and began pumping. With sweat pouring from my brow I had almost got the tire up to pressure when BANG, the fucking thing blew again, this time with my ear right next to it. By now the offending Schwalbe XR’s bead had been well and truly obliterated. Out came my spare tire, I trued the rim again and put a second new tube in. With every push of the pump I waited for a third bang, my heart was in my mouth as slowly I managed to get the tire up to pressure. With blistered hands from so much pumping I reset the rear brakes whose cable had been blown long by the explosion and got back on the road.

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Got to love those punctures… everything happens for a reason

The whole process had taken a fair while and now it was past lunch time with the afternoon rains on the horizon. Keen to make at least some progress I figured I’d get a few miles under my belt before stopping for lunch, gambling on the fact that I’d manage to get it done before the rainy season worked its worst. Riding in the rain is bliss at these temperatures, cooking and eating, not so much fun. Having hauled my hungry frame up 3.5 miles of the winding hill I spilled off the side of the road to grab a bit of shade and take down some water. It wasn’t long before I was setting off again, I pushed on the pedals and HISSSS, a massive thorn was sticking out of my front tire. A smirk snarled across my face as I unloaded and set to work on my new puncture problem. Before long I found myself with pump in hand again. After initial attempts to seat the tire failed I let out the air, wet the bead and started pumping again. It was then that the heavens opened with obscene amounts of water. By the time I had the thing blown up to passable proportions my hands were literally bleeding from the blisters and causing quite a fair bit of discomfort. 2.25 wide Marathon XR’s hold a lot of air, four of them hold more air that my small pump was designed to pump in succession. Five hours since I’d left Tapanatepec it was clear that the universe didn’t want me riding that road that day. I listened to the signs and for the first time on tour retreated back in the direction I’d come from, to the refuge of a hotel in Tapanatepec.

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Rob and Mike the Bike… we were meant to meet

My retreat was absolutely motivated by an uneasy feeling that came from the bizarre and so far unexplained turn of events with my wheels. I was far from defeated, just superstitious. At the time it was obvious that things simply weren’t supposed to happen how I’d envisaged. An hour later the reason why presented itself more definitely in the shape of Rob, the only other guest at the hotel that night. Not only is Rob (www.robsbikeride.com), 55, a cycle tourist, he is also a Londoner, a rare treat indeed. A rock band tour manager in his pre tour life, Rob has spent the last three years cycling around the world. If he was any more laid back this guy would be just a relaxing vibration. Meeting Rob made my week, having had absolutely no mechanical issues with his Koga Signature in 3 years he was obviously someone I could learn from. Sleeping in hotels has amongst other things allowed Rob to load up his stead ‘Mike the Bike‘ very lightly, the reason we agreed for his remarkable mechanical reliability. I’ve had one mechanical after another and this must be down to a heavy load. We unpicked my load and I was motivated to make that change. Once I return to Mexico I’m going to swap out my bulky synthetic sleeping bag for a space-saving down one, lose my spares, tools and as much other stuff as possible. Rob made me realise that I’d been viewing my load wrong; I’d always figured that if I was happy and could easily haul it up big hills and over rough roads then it is alright, I had missed the point, it isn’t about me, it’s about Shermy. I have been punishing my bike with the weight and she deserves a break, that break is coming.

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Another Mexican State… another picture of me in front of a sign

After a pleasant evening and a couple of beers with Rob I moved off the next day to retrace my steps back up the hill. The easy day before had made me strong and I powered up the hill into Chiapas in good style. After an early lunch I had an exceptionally enjoyable 60 miles before starting to look for a camp spot. It had thankfully been raining all day, a fact that contributed to a camp spot finding disaster. I managed to get both myself and Shermy swamped in some very thick and sticky mud. After much time and effort I managed to extract us from the swamp but my feet resembled large balls of mud and Shermy was so clogged up I couldn’t even see the brake calipers let alone make her wheels rotate. Oops. Fortunately it rained so hard that night that much of the mud I couldn’t scrape of got washed away. The cleaning process was completed the next night when I got caught 3,500 feet up the climb from Chiapa de Corzo in an almighty thunder-storm. I had just finished pitching up and settled under my tarp to cook dinner when the storm broke. Chuffed at having found a great little spot overlooking Tuxtla hidden from the road on a bed of charcoals, I was looking forward to a leisurely dinner. It didn’t happen, I had to retreat into the tent to munch on cold oats. Inconvenienced but happy, things could have been worse, if I’d decided to ride any further I would have had to pitch up in the pouring rain.

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On the climb to San Cristobal… the road traveled is visible on the far hill-side

Next morning the luxury of a bed of charcoals to sleep on backfired as everything was covered in soot. I was very wet, rather damp smelling and filthy with nasty black grime when I set off that morning up the old 190 towards San Cristobal de las Casas. Others accounts of the climb had suggested it was some kind of epic battle. The reality is that it is a really pleasant and harmless little ascent. The grades are by no means severe and if you take the old road you’ll be free from traffic and forever distracted by the trappings of indigenous Mayan life. I think the mistake many tourists take is trying to  reach San Cristobal from Tuxtla and maybe taking the dull, busy and presumably monotonous Cuota road. I was actually disappointed that the climb wasn’t longer and more severe. Great fun though.

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San Cristobal de las Casas from the Iglesia de Guadalupe

So here I am about to leave Mexico and lucky to be staying with my first Warmshowers hosts in this country I have grown to adore. Zofia and Steven hail from Poland and the U.S. respectively and are on a bike tour themselves. They spent many months touring the Yucatan before falling in love with San Cristobal and deciding to stay until the rainy season ends. With a gorgeous apartment and just as beautiful a dog, Mia, they are more than a little settled and fantastic people to spend time with. It is easy to see how people get seduced by San Cristobal but like Oaxaca it feels a little touristy for my liking. Not to say that I couldn’t stay here because I most certainly could but that very homeliness is one reason why its great to live in but not so inspiring to visit. Unmissable none the less and an apt jumping off point for Guatemala. In three days time I’ll be in a new country having cycled the length of Mexico, but I will soon be back and when I return some surprising changes are in store for VeloFreedom.

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