For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
After I got mucked about by a bike shop in Mexico City I was forced to order a new Bottom Bracket to be delivered to a somewhere down the road. Through Warmshowers I found a guy in Merida, Yucatan who was willing to accept parcels for me and so I had Phil Wood send a fine stainless steel BB there. While I was at it I got several other things sent to the same address, items I wanted sending from the UK. Then I decided to stay at Tierra del Sol farm for three weeks and ride through Guatemala and Belize, so my parcels have been waiting on me a while. A few days ago I arrived at that address myself and was astounded by what I found. It is the home of Ken and Erin, two U.S. citizens who have decided to retire to the Yucatan. It’s not hard to see why either, their home is absolutely gorgeous, the expat community here is thriving and the city of Merida undoubtedly has a really special feel about it.
Thanks to the extremely generous hospitality of Ken, I have really settled in here in Merida. Hailing from Georgia, Ken is great company and has been a perfect host and tour guide. Through him I’ve been able to access the expat community of Merida and meet others who have decided to make Mexico their home. It probably comes as no surprise that they are considerably more advanced in years than myself, but I like this… older people have more stories to tell. Merida is a popular place to settle because it offers a safe and very North American take on Mexico. The city is bursting with Mexican and Yucatecan culture, with numerous live events in the streets pretty much every night and an unmistakable Mayan presence. Yet when you travel into the northern areas you could be mistaken for thinking you’ve wandered into the United States; there are wide streets and huge modern superstores, retail parks and malls, generic marks of pretty much all U.S. towns and cities. A U.S. citizen can live like a U.S. citizen down here just considerably cheaper and with the bonus of a strong and exotic culture.
On flat roads and seriously buoyed by the joy of being in Mexico, I fairly motored on up to Merida. I made the 214 mile trip from Bacalar in just three days, enjoying the chance to cycle aggressively, maintaining enough speed to win a cool and refreshing breeze. The storm clouds of Belize have stayed there and my time on the Yucatan peninsula has thus far been characterized by blue skies and a beating sun. I took a fairly direct route, trying to avoid larger roads yet balancing this wish for enjoyable riding against a desire for swift progress.
The first days riding out of Bacalar was probably the most interesting as I was able to enjoy some small rural roads on a shortcut between highways 293 and 307. This took me north-west via the village of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla to join highway 293 at Avila Camacho. Very gently undulating country roads crowded in by dense greenery or farmland, taking me through small and no doubt seldom visited pueblos and villages. Having just endured riding on the mind numbing highways of Belize and characterless four lane highway up from the border, these rural roads made a real impact; like that first gulp of air after swimming a length underwater. I spent my first ten miles feeling as if I was in a dream; the slick and flat road surface had me gliding effortlessly at exhilarating speed through a sunny blur of lush green. There was absolutely no traffic and I was indulging in some serious self-congratulation, a practice that intensified further when I turned onto the muddy partially paved road towards Avila Camacho. A narrow track through remote agricultural plots it alternated between short stretches of smooth packed mud, slippery wet mud, deep clingy mud, large aggressive chunks of gravel and patches of dusty packed aggregate. At last some interesting riding. Within a mile I had hit the deck after coming off a particularly slick stretch of packed earth and pounded my balls up into my eye sockets trying to ride through a small puddle that turned out to be a muddy crater almost a foot in depth… I’m still seeing stars. Good, honest, physical riding.
That first day out of Bacalar I laid down 70 miles, finding a reasonably priced cabana to sleep in just short of the village of Tampak. It was here that I encountered the first giant Tarantula of the trip. I’ve been trying to find one of these giant spiders since my time in the north of Mexico but they’ve been proving elusive, that was until a fine specimen scuttled across the patio I was cooking dinner on. Literally the size of my spread hand I got down and had a thorough and completely awestruck inspection of the beast. Tarantulas won’t bite humans and if they do, won’t kill you, but the size of the thing made it obvious why they command so much respect from us.
After this first interesting day the following two were rather mundane but with my spirits still up from the return to Mexico, they were very enjoyable nevertheless. Day two saw me cover 86 very hot and sunny miles at speeds I rarely sustain. That rather uncharacteristically long day dropped me into the charming and friendly town of Oxkutzcab (not an easy one to get your tongue around). The next morning, after an interview with a local radio and newspaper, I set out on the gentle 58 mile spin up small rural roads, through Sacalum and Uayalceh into Merida. On entering the city I reached the statistical milestone of having cycled 10,000 miles fully loaded since setting off south from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. In reality I have cycled a lot further, having put down hundreds of fully loaded miles in Alaska before Prudhoe Bay and done a fair few additional miles without the bags. Still, as I’ve stopped and started through the last 16 months it serves as a reminder of how far I’ve come.
Merida is a beautiful colonial city and one that I’m very lucky to have had Ken show me around. Although I haven’t felt unsafe in Mexico for many months, here I feel safer than ever. A comparison of Merida with say Hidalgo del Parral that I stayed in Chihuahua, really helps highlight the huge diversity present in this enormous country, a country that I feel at home in and love more than I ever imagined I would. Although the architecture is grander down here, there is little difference between north and south in this respect. Outwardly the settlements themselves look very similar, dominated by Spanish colonial influences. It is the same with the people, although their ethnicity makes for some physical differences, the people are equally as friendly in both regions, although possibly a bit brasher and cheekier up north. The real differences are hard to explain, the sum of a series of distinct yet subtle differences that make each region unmistakable in itself. For example, in the North it is standard dress for men to strut around in pure white cowboy hats, pressed shirts, jeans and ornately decorated cowboy boots. Men up there would never ever wear short trousers out in public where as here in Merida shorts are the standard uniform for many with cowboy attire only breaking out on the stages at the numerous and frequent cultural shows. For women this trend is slightly flipped with the women of the south often dressed along traditional Mayan lines while their northern counterparts are almost exclusively Ladino. Then there are the accents, the food, smells, trucks and many other differences in the things that make up everyday life.
This couple of weeks is bringing an overhaul of my gear. Having endured some pretty harsh conditions over the last 16 months a fair amount of my stuff has been showing the strain. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, I have taken possession of a new Phil Wood Bottom Bracket. This is a sublime and beautiful piece of engineering that I feel privileged to have spinning effortlessly between my feet. Having had Rudy, a local bike mechanic with a seemingly justified reputation fit it, I’ve done a bit of work on the old girl; changing brake cables, grip tape and cleaning up and greasing all the important bits that need that treatment. For the first time in as long as I can remember I have a perfectly functioning and silky smooth operating bicycle… fully fitted out with top of the range components she is one hell of a machine and I am very proud to call her my own.
To go with Shermy’s rebirth I have new cycling shoes, a straight replacement for my old Mavic Alpines that have served me so well, new socks, waterproof trousers, Ronhill joggers (that I love to cycle in), and over-shoes, all straight replacements. Also I’ve finally got around to buying a brother for my solitary pair of underpants and been able to replace the 13 litre Ortlieb dry bag that got destroyed by a dog in Mexico City. And this is just the start, when I get to Cancun I’ll hook up with a new sleeping bag (despite adoring my current synthetic bag I’ve decided the smaller bulk of a down bag would have many advantages), cycling jersey and several other bits and pieces. Also in Cancun I’ll be getting a new camera after I managed to lose mine to the Rio Dulce whilst in Guatemala. I had to go out and pay well over the odds for a temporary replacement to ensure I had the pictures I do for the period since then. Much money has been spent unexpectedly on an overhaul that will take my tour into a new era.