For the full photo diary of this part of the tour please click here
Instantly forgettable highway riding, a fun little evening jaunt on dirt, camping amongst hundreds of spiders and a very welcome drop in temperatures characterise my twilight days in Mexico; four and a bit days of riding from Campeche south into Palenque. It’s only been 260 miles since my last post but those few and unremarkable miles have catapulted me back into a good old touring routine that I’ve craved for months now. The weather has cooled down significantly and with that I’ve been able to leave the cheap and dirty hotel rooms of the Yucatan peninsular and Belize behind me and crawl back into my tent. With the end of my Mexican adventure only one hundred or so miles away and the roads conducive to thought, I’ve been reflecting hard on what’s been and what’s happening.
Knowing I’m going to be sleeping in the tent transforms my touring mindset, it releases me from the oppressive restrictions the necessity of hotels imposes on route and spontaneity. Camping makes for touring without borders and is instrumental in distilling life back down to the essentials that give bike touring its essence of freedom; biking, eating and sleeping. It’s come as a massive relief to both my wallet and moral to now be firmly back in the old thoroughbred touring routine. Our second day out of Campeche even gave us significantly lower temperatures, grey skies and rain; despite riding the really really boring 261 and 186 highways it felt great to be living cold dirty and wet again. When we eventually turned off the highway and hit up 19 miles of dirt road things had firmly fallen back in my direction… all I need now are some big mountains to climb.
Those mountains aren’t so far away as in a few days we’ll be crossing the border at Frontera and entering Guatemala; the small country with the big and beautiful mountains. I was knocked for six by the purity of the Mayan people I encountered there on my first ride through and have been fortunate enough over the last couple of weeks to visit sites significant to their collective heritage. It is the Mayan ruins of Palenque that have drawn us here and having spent much of yesterday out-of-town in the archeological zone I can safely conclude that the draw is justified. Where as Tulum and Chichen Itza have recently left me a bit cold and doubtful, Palenque proved to be a winner on all fronts.
Romantically snuggled into the lowland hilly jungle of Chiapas, the ruins of the Mayan city of Palenque engage the eye as much as the mind. The current site is known to cover over 2.5 square kilometers and reveals a settlement of unprecedented population density for the region. The entire city was likely much larger than this and is thought to have developed from origins in 100BC to prime size and influence in the 7th century. Forever associated with its most influential and iconic ruler, K’uk’ B’alam I, the city developed into a myriad of religious, official and domestic buildings that arrange themselves serenely amongst the undulations and thick greenery of the locality. Palenque was eventually abandoned some time around the 9th century leaving a rich and exciting selection of architectural gems to sink slowly back into the all encompassing jungle. That was until the late 1700’s when interest began to grow and the 20th century when archeological excavation and study began in earnest.
Palenque is one of the most written about and studied significant Mayan sites and academic factors aside, it is easy to see why. The way the ground swoops and heaves around the clumps of often densely packed buildings gives it a charm and character conspicuously lacking at Chichen Itza. The colours, smells and noises of the jungle also contribute to the otherworldly ambiance and serenity that shroud the site. I don’t have a bad word to say about the place; it was quiet, good value, very well maintained and informative. The ruins themselves are extremely impressive, most notably the complex of courtyards and buildings that make up the central Palace and the quiet authoritative dominance of the beautiful Temple of the Inscriptions. The raw materials are there for a fantastic visitor experience and unlike Chichen Itza which turned out to be a hollow whirl of commercial exploitation, at Palenque the potential is lived up to. There are very few restrictions on where you can tread, only a limited number of relaxed local venders and with the fantastic and modern museum, plenty of information to take home with you. This probably sounds like something fresh from a tourist brochure but Palenque proved itself to be a worthy full stop on my looping journey around this far southern and eastern part of Mexico.
I’ve generally enjoyed my little loop around the Yucatan peninsular but with its high temperatures, humidity and flat straight roads it becomes old very quickly. So I’ve been delighted to have just had a day riding through the flood prone agricultural lowlands of Tabasco and to have returned to my favorite of the twenty Mexican states I’ve ridden through, Chiapas. Everything about this state is beautiful and glorious, from its topography to its traditions and most significantly, its people. Although great people is not the exclusive realm of Chiapas, they populate the entire country. Mexican people are cheeky, kind, generally very respectful and make me laugh. During my first week in the country I received an email from one of my touring inspirations, Nancy from Familyonbikes.org, she assured me that over the whole Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia route she rode with her husband and two young sons, the Mexican people were the kindest and most welcoming. At the time I had trouble allying this with all that I had been told in the U.S.A., but now it is obvious to me what she was saying.
When I rode over the border almost nine months ago I was scared of Mexico. With a head heavy from anti-Mexican U.S. propaganda I was intimidated by a place and people I did not know. My course took me down the sadly uninspiring and very disappointing Baja peninsular into La Paz where I had to make the decision that would shape this entire tour. I am proud to have shunned the option of a quick and easy southerly route through Mexico, instead opting to travel north up into the Copper Canyon. Alighting from the train in Divisadero, and subsequently riding a challenging route through the heart of the Copper Canyon with a cracked rim, only one brake, a severe chest infection and struggling hamstring, made my tour. That is where Mexico opened her arms to me and I’ve loved every moment since.
Mexico is bloody massive! No one told me this before I got here and I’d never really thought too much about planning a route or researching places to visit. This open-ended pragmatic approach has led me on a pretty thorough tour of the place. Since crossing into Mexico for the first time (I’ve subsequently reentered a couple of additional times) I’ve cycled over 4,300 miles on Mexican soil to be here in Palenque now. Guatemala is only a couple of days away so this is close to the figure I’ll leave with. In addition to those miles I’ve climbed 173,500 feet and spent prolonged periods of time in Urique in the Copper Canyon, Zacatecas, Mexico City, Tierra del Sol permaculture farm just east of Oaxaca, Merida and strangely, Cancun. I’ve managed to dive in and out of many different regions and areas of Mexican life, stitching a thread of adventure through this incredibly varied country.
From the cowboy boot and hat clad mustache sporting macho guys of the north through to the stylish fashionable kids of D.F. and the reserved and retiring Maya of the Chiapas highlands, people, certain attitudes and social traits reveal Mexico to be incredibly diverse. On more than a couple of occasions I’ve heard myself describe it as four or five different nations in one. To my mind this makes it even more of a shame that the international media tend to smear the entire territory with the label of ‘danger’ derived from the unfortunate narco related crime and violence prevalent in pockets of the north. I would give Monterrey a wide berth right now but by the same token, have never felt safer than I have in Oaxaca, Chiapas and the entire Yucatan peninsular.
So it has been with a slightly heavy heart that I’ve spun down from Campeche. I’ve welcomed with open arms the return to tent life but have had much to ponder of this country and what my discoveries here mean for the rest of the journey south. In short, I am excited and darn well should be… I’ve got all of Central and South America to discover! But a benchmark has been set, I don’t expect mighty Mexico to surrender my affections easily. Although I thought that last time before the Guatemalan Highlands swept me off my feet.