Jeff gave them 10 pesos. I decided to ask the man holding the jar, “donación voluntaria?” He responded, “Si, donación voluntaria.” I was very tempted to say, “como bandido” (like bandit) before riding away but decided not to escalate it further.
Period Covered: September 11 – 17, 2013
Locations: Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca (City), Juchitán de Zaragoza, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Palenque, Laguna Milagros
Is there anything more miserable than wearing wet socks and boots for the entire day? I’m sure there must be but I have not yet encountered it. After a nice breakfast in town, we put on our gear and headed north up the extremely winding mountain roads towards the ancient city of Oaxaca. Most of my gear was dry except for my SIDI Discovery boots. There was a lot of rain on our way to Puerto Escondido and I made the mistake of tucking my waterproof inner trouser lining into my boots. As a result, the rainwater seeped past the outer layer of the BMW Rallye3 suit into my boots. My riding suit, t-shirt and underwear dried off overnight but my socks and boots did not. I had two pairs of skiing/snowboarding socks which I was using for motorcycling so I was able to alternate with a dry pair. The inner liner of the boots were still damp and it didn’t take long to feel the wetness through the previously dry but now damp pair of socks after putting on my boots.
Oaxaca was only 250km away on Highway 131. Google Maps shows the travel time being 3 hours and 11 minutes. Unsurprisingly, that was a lie. Zoom in on the highlighted path in Google Map below to see just how curvy the roads were.
The road for the entire journey was paved but there were lots of cracks, bumps, and potholes all over the road. It was quite rough at the beginning but got better. There were also 10-15 km stretches where the rough road suddenly became new smooth tarmac before turning rough again. The road was extremely curvy which was fun at first but became a tiring repetition of lean left, accelerate, lean right.
We passed through many small towns with interesting names: San Pedro Mixtepec, San Gabriel Mixtepec, San Pedro Juchatengo, San Pablo Huxtepec, Zimatlan. Whenever a local saw us they would stare as we passed by. I sometimes waived to them or nodded my head and they would waive back. Again, I had to be careful with animals on the road such as donkeys and barking chasing dogs.
Our journey from Puerto Escondido to Oaxaca took us just over 6 hours. The last hour before we arrived we encountered some rain but nothing torrential compared the previous day. I had researched ahead to find Hotel Posada del Centro which has a great location and allowed us to park inside the hostel courtyard. Oaxaca is a Spanish colonial city founded in 1532. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs settled in the Oaxaca Valley for thousands of years before the Aztecs moved in. Today, Oaxaca city is also the capital of the State of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is the historic home of the Zapotec and Mixtec people among with many other indigenous groups. The state has more indigenous language speakers than any other Mexican state. Monte Albán ruins, a World Heritage Site, is located nearby and a great source of tourism for Oaxaca along with the city’s Spanish colonial architecture.
I rather liked Oaxaca. The cobblestone streets and architecture reminded me a lot of Cuzco (Peru) but without the altitude and steep hills. After checking out the Zocalo (main square), I grabbed a typical Oaxaca dinner at La Casa del tio Guero. I ordered the menu del dia (inexpensive set meal of the day) and selected a bean soup with tortilla and Oaxaca cheese as my appetizer and a delicious chicken with black mole sauce as my main. I’ve had chicken in mole sauce before but never really loved it. Since mole is so prominent in Oaxacan dishes (the state of Oaxaca is known as “the land of the seven moles”), I had to give it a try. The mole negro sauce had an intense, complex flavour that went really well with the chicken. The sauce wasn’t spicy and there are so many flavours but the one that I could only pick out was chocolate (which Oaxaca is also famous for). I realized this excellent mole sauce is truly what mole is all about rather than the weak imitation I had somewhere in the US where I last had it. As much as the world has globalized and you can find outstanding ethnic restaurants back in my hometown of Toronto, sometimes it requires going straight to the source to really understand and appreciate the authenticity. I looked forward to trying different types of mole sauces.
Jeff and I rode to Monte Albán on our rest day in Oaxaca. Founded around 500BC by the Zapotecs, the city had an estimated population of 17,200 by 200AD making it one of the largest Mesoamerican cities at its time. Monte Albán is located on top of a ridge above the Oaxaca plains. The site features a main plaza, northern platform, southern platform, many stone monuments, a ceremonial structure, and ballgame court. After paying the entrance fee, we were approached by a guide named Hector and decided to have him show us around for 250 Mexican pesos ($20). Having Hector as our guide was totally worth it because there wasn’t any real exhibit or explanations on site. Hector gave us a rundown on the history of Monte Albán, Zapotec culture and architecture.
After returning to Oaxaca, I checked out the Museum of Oaxaca Cultures (Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca) beside the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church. The cultural museum was located within the former monastery attached to the Santo Domingo church. The exhibits were really interesting and the audio guide walked you through how each room was previously used by the monks as well as what was on exhibit. The exhibits covered the history of Oaxaca area including the Zapotecs at Monte Albán, Mixtecs, Aztecs, arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, colonial rule, rebellion, revolution and independence.
I was interested in checking out the Teatro Macedonio de Alcala (theatre) at their secret 12pm or 1pm tour but that didn’t work out since there was ongoing rehearsal. Chocolate is another specialty of Oaxaca which I had to try before leaving Oaxaca. After the cultural museum, I took a chocolate (pronounced ‘choco-latte’) break at Mayordomo. I ordered a hot cocoa with milk and bread. A waitress came by with a large jug with hot milk and the chocolate was ground down using a wooden stick. Mayordomo chocolates are only made from sugar, roasted cacao beans, almonds and cinnamon typical of Oaxaca. Delicious!
I walked over to the two famous Oaxaca markets: Mercado 20 de Noviembre and Mercado Benito Juárez. Unfortunately, I went there too late and shops were closing up. I had hoped to try chapulines (fried grasshopers in chile sauce) but I was too full anyways. The last thing on my list to try in Oaxaca was the alcoholic beverage mezcal made from agave similar to tequila. We saw many mezcal distilleries around Oaxaca city and I wanted to have a taste to see if I liked it better than tequila. I went to Las Danzantes for dinner and had a shot of mezcal along with my chile rello garnished with chapulines. The mezcal tasted quite similar to tequila but smokier and although I liked it more than tequila it was still not something I enjoyed.
The next destination was San Cristóbal de las Casas. However, the distance was too great to do in one day so we decided to make a stopover at Juchitán de Zaragoza. We took highway 190 from Oaxaca to Tehuantepec. This section was twisty but not as bad as highway 131 to Oaxaca and in better conditions. We got drenched again close to Juchitán and most of the streets in town seemed flooded. We took a look at three different hotels before settling on the nicest one with secure parking. The second hotel we checked out had the dirtiest hotel room we’ve ever seen (no toilet seat!) The entrance to the parking area had tiled floors and it was hard to control our bikes on the slippery surface with wet tires.
Have I mentioned all the rain so far? September is rainy season for Mexico and much of Central America. It is not the ideal time to visit but I had no choice based on my timeline and desire to reach the end of South America in December and Antarctica in January. It took us some time to navigate out of the city and the still flooded streets would be a sign of much worse to come. We followed MX200 eastward to connect with highway 190. The rain started up again and came down really hard. We encountered several overpasses which were blocked by rocks and other obstacles requiring us to go around. Unfortunately, the rain water pooled in the area under the overpass and reached over 2′ (~60cm) high. Even worse, we couldn’t see what kind of surface was underneath the water. I followed Jeff’s lead as we slowly pushed past the water hoping not to drop my motorcycle in the water. The first two washouts were okay and we slowly picked our way through. The last one was downright scary. We decided to watch a pick-up truck struggle through a deep crossing with uneven terrain. There must be significant potholes underneath the water. We then watch a tractor trailer plow through the centre and bobble here and there. Jeff led us through the left hand side slowly. At one point he hit a hole and the whole bike quickly leaned left but he was able to put his feet down and hold up his Super Ténéré and prevent it from drowning. I kept both feet out ready to put them down to stabilize the bike but luckily I was able to pick a pothole free path based on my observation from Jeff ahead.
With what I thought to be the worst of the day over, we sped along highway 200 towards Arriaga to connect with highway 190. Six kilometres before Tepanatepec, we encounter a long line of stopped vehicles. I talked to a trucker and asked him what the hold-up was. He indicated there was a protest blockading the road but that they might let motorcycles through. I walked to the front to check out what was going on. This was my first encounter with protest blockades so I didn’t want to be the guy on the expensive vehicle immediately demanding to be let through. I took off my helmet and looked around to see if they had any signs or were chanting anything. A lady on the side of the road asked me if I was on motorcycle, to which I said yes. She then asked the standard questions: Where are you from? Where are you going? Do you like Mexico? She then offered for me to duck under her yellow umbrella since it was still raining. I figured I might as well be a gentleman and offered instead to hold the umbrella for both of us. This attracted attention and catcalls from the protesters in the middle of the road. One of them even took a picture of us. Jeff then approached the protesters behind the blockade and asked if anyone spoke English. He had a chat with some of them to figure out what the protest was about (education reform). He filmed some of them as they chanted and I heard him say, “Can we pass on our motorcycles? Okay great, thank you!” We quickly got back on our motorcycles and squeezed by the gap on the shoulder after protesters moved aside for us to get through. I’d like to think my charm had something to do with them liking us and letting us through.
We filled up on gas in Tepanatepec and I took the chance to empty my boots of water. We crossed into the State of Chiapas (southernmost State of Mexico) just before Ariraga. We reached Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital, after a two hour ride. We had to decide whether to take the free road (highway 190) or the toll road (highway 190D) from Tuxtla to San Cristóbal. The toll road was only 23km shorter but it was a lot less twisty and would save us more than an hour. This was extremely important because San Cristóbal de las Casas is located at 2,200m above sea level. As we climbed in altitude, the temperature dropped from 32°C to 13°C which felt extremely cold in my wet gear. I shivered violently and even with the heated-grips turned to high I was losing sensations in my fingertips. Fortunately, we arrived in San Cristóbal quickly and Jeff found us a great deal at the Rossco Backpackers Hostel (biker’s special: stay two nights for the price of one!) We were able to ride our motorcycles through the gate to securely park in the courtyard (tough to find in this town). The great location, clean room, hot shower, free breakfast and wifi completed everything we needed from a hostel.
Jorge, one of the staff at the Rossco Backpackers, was a motorcyclist as well and welcomed us warmly. I’m pretty sure his love of motorcycling is the reason why there’s a 2-for-1 special for bikers. He asked us where we were coming from, where we were going and our journey through Mexico. When I described our encounter with armed men in Michoácan his facial expression quickly changed. He asked, “Were they old men? Were they armed with old rifles? Were they wearing masks?” I replied no to all three questions. “Those guys were Narcos!” I asked, “What about the police truck that followed us out of town? Maybe they were militia working with the police?” Jorge then explained that Narcos have been painting their trucks to look like police trucks (blue with white lettering) and that if they did see police they would just fire on them. He told me how he was riding through a dungy small town in northern Mexico when some locals told him to get out of there by 2pm. The next day he read a violent massacre took place in that town with over 10 bodies found. The violence was related to drug trafficking activities so it probably would not have involved tourists like him but it is still wild that he was so close to being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
San Cristóbal de las Casas is the cultural capital of Chiapas founded in the 1500s. Similar to Oaxaca, there’s a significant indigenous population with the Mayan ethnic groups of Tzotzil and Tzetzal being the most important. Since the 90s, the revolutionary leftist group Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ELZN) based in Chiapas has been active with San Cristóbal at the centre of many activities. At the suggestion of Jorge, I grabbed dinner at El Méson del Tacos after taking a look at the cathedral and the Zocalo. The suggested queso fundido was an excellent dish of melted cheese with vegetables and meats. I could also see a woman making fresh corn tortillas by forming small balls of dough, flattening them with a press, and then grilling them immediately before passing them to the cook. Fresh corn tortillas with a well spiced mixture of melted cheese and meats washed down by Negra Modelo…could it get any better than this?
I checked out the local market with Jeff on our rest day in San Cristóbal and strolled around town checking the usual sights (main square, churches and cathedrals, shops). We witnessed a procession of protesters in the main square. For lunch, I ate tamales (one with chiplin and one with mole) with the locals at the market in the square opposite the cathedral. It was cheap, fresh and super tasty. Similar to my experience with mole, I had tamales before in Houston but nothing like these ones.
After dinner at El Méson del Tacos once again, I attended the Mexican Independence Day festivities including El Grito and the fireworks. The Grito event is a remembrance of the first cry of independence by Hidalgo y Costilla on September 16, 1810. On the night of September 15, cities and towns all over Mexico hold celebrations which include the ringing of the bell and the reciting/yelling of the traditional words. The only words I could really make out was, “¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!” [Link to Grito] I then witnessed a firework show that would never have been allowed any place that had reasonable fire and safety regulations.
The embedded movie below is over 13 minutes long. For a summary and links to the interesting parts read the description after the video.
The metallic cross beside the Catedral de San Cristóbal de las Casas kicked off the show with spinning fireworks metres away from the crowd. The nearby crowd quickly ran away from the smoke and sparks shooting off [link to video]. The spinning sparks flew high and since the metallic cross acting as the base of the spinning fireworks was located metres away from the cathedral, I worried that some of the sparks would hit the structure and causing a fire. Did I mention the cathedral of San Cristóbal was started in 1528 and went through a few earthquakes requiring extensive renovations? After the spinning fireworks were finished, the top launched up shooting off fireworks high in the sky [link to video]. The top piece then fell back down into the crowd of people still on fire. There was then a brief musical intermission before 3 minutes of fireworks launched into the sky from the nearby plaza [link to video]. Usually, there’s an area cordoned off from the public where fireworks are launched and debris may land. No such thing here. I was struck on my forehead by a piece of debris! [Link to video]
Stills from the video for those who can’t access the video:
Our luck ran out on our way to Palenque (213 km). We left San Cristóbal at 10am and hit a road blockade 45km south of Ocosingo. We rode to the front of the convoy and parked before the gate. The road under the gate was blocked by people, rocks, and a piece of lumber with nails sticking out. We hoped to wait a little bit, listen and talk to the protesters and be let through quickly similar to our last encounter on the way to Oaxaca but there was no such luck this time. One of the leaders who made many speeches, told us the blockade would lift in about an hour on three separate occasions. We grew frustrated sitting under the heat listening to the leader making speeches in Spanish and in an indigenous language. There was nothing we could do and no way to go around. The only parts of the speech which I could understand were: “Por una educacion gratuita al servicio del pueblo” (Free education to serve the people) , “lucha de classe” (class struggle), “no a la reforma de energética” (energy reform related to privatization), “no a la reforma hacendaria” (tax reform). Four hours after we arrived, they moved the rocks away from the middle of the road and the leader came by with a jar asking for a “voluntary donation”. Jeff gave them 10 pesos. I decided to ask the man holding the jar, “donación voluntaria?” He responded, “Si, donación voluntaria.” I was very tempted to say, “como bandido” (like bandit) before riding away but decided not to escalate it further.
Once they let us through, we really hauled ass since we had limited time before nightfall to reach Palenque. It was enjoyable to take the twisty road through the tropical jungle landscape without any traffic ahead of us. The last 30 minutes before arriving into Palenque was not as much fun since the sunlight was fading which makes riding twisty roads in the jungle much more dangerous. I was relieved to arrive in Palenque and into our hotel (Xibalba) without any issues. When I connected to the wifi, I received a frantic email from my girlfriend who had gotten worried about me. I had forgotten to turn off my Delorme InReach Personal Locator Beacon (PBL). The batteries ran out so it showed I hadn’t moved in over 7 hours without a check-in notification saying I was okay and done for the day. I quickly responded to let her know I was indeed okay, and not off a cliff somewhere, and that I had been stuck behind a road blockade for 4 hours. I would have to remember to check my Delorme InReach batteries regularly and change them ahead to prevent them from running out and stop tracking. It was nice to think that someone out there was worried about me, checking my PBL tracker, and willing to contact the authorities quickly in case I went missing!
We spent the final night in Mexico at Gringo Dave’s in Laguna Milagros close to Chetumal and the Belize border. The road from Palenque to Laguna Milagro was fairly flat and straight which was a nice respite from several days of riding twisty mountain roads. We were able to go quite fast and cover a lot of distance. I ran out of gas at one point just 25 km short of a gas station but I knew that might happen and Jeff and I agreed I could use his 3L reserve. Gringo Dave is an old American expat who has been living in Mexico for quite a long time. The property was nicely situated on a lagoon although there was a lot of water flooding on the grounds due to all the rain they’ve been having. I heard about Gringo Dave’s through Camelia’s blog South American Adventure. Dave was nice enough to show us the property including the newly built cabanas and took us to a comeodor where we had homemade empanadas made from scratch. I had four empanadas and a bottle of coke for $2!
Since we would be crossing into Belize the next day, Stage 2 – Mexico of my trip was coming to an end. I really enjoyed my time in Mexico. I loved the people, the food, and the diverse culture. Many people have a misconception that all of Mexico is dangerous to travel. While one has to be careful and avoid some of the more dangerous regions, it is still a very worthwhile country to visit and experience. I look forward to visiting Mexico again in the future especially Guadalajara, Mexico City and Puebla.