Happy B-day to me! My 2nd one on this trip and likely not the last… But there were a lot of things to do, no time to celebrate. I woke up with a very sore throat, but reckoned that it was he airco’s fault and did not think much of it.
Ivana & I took our mums back to the airport in two separate transfers and then went over to Veronica & Hector to collect our stuff. We could have stayed with them again, but we had to get started to Belize, where my sister would arrive in 8 days time, so we said goodbye to our good friends that had helped us out so much.
Hector took a nice photo of us outside their home and sent us an article in a magazine a while later, if you read Spanish you can click on the mage to the right to read it:
Hector also did a video interview, which can be seen here, in 2 parts on the video & interview page (in Spanish mostly).
The wind-gods were merciful for our first day on the bike in about a month, and we cruised the 70km Playa del Carmen in less than 4 hours. My throat did not feel so bad, but I was starting to get a huge headache, so I took one of the new migraine pills that Cristi had taken from Argentina. It did not get much better.
Our CouchSurfing host Ulises –who even spoke some Dutch thanks to his GF- had another guest coming and we went to pick her up together in the crazy downtown of PdC. Back home I crashed completely, with a big fever as an addition to the migraine, and could not appreciated the veggie ceviche that Ulises made as I would normally do. I stumbled to bed and felt hot and cold at the same time, not sleeping or resting much and awoke feeling I had plundered a cheap tequila bar the night before.
Ulises offered us to stay another day to recover, but as we did not have many spare days and it was only 45km to Tulum, we headed out. It was flat and boring again and we passed yet more places starting with an ‘X’ and containing ‘zip lines’ and other ‘eco-adventures’ like ruining the jungle with quads.
But first we planned to do a quick stop in Tulum, where yet another CouchSurfer was waiting.
I was far from a ‘Spanish’ mood. Usually I get tired of speaking, reading and hearing Spanish some time in the afternoon, but now I had already woken up exhausted and was happy that Lianne was Dutch, as my head was exploding and no other tongue worked.
I do not remember much of the following 24 hours as I was sweating, hallucinating and trapped in some lost space-time continuum. Only at the end of the next day I had enough energy to cycle the 3km to the beach, where I had to lie down to recover and we stayed another night with Lianne.
Mexican culture bonus: Topes
We have discussed a lot about Mexico in our recent updates covering the 4 months (!) we crossed the entire country from one side to another. The friendly people, the cities, the culture, the food, the nature.
One very important thing I have not mentioned yet, while it is maybe one of the most important and widespread aspects of Mexican history when seeing through a cyclist’s glasses (which are usually a lot clearer than a driver’s glasses :))
The Mexican love for speed-reducing things on the roads. As Mexicans are used to the fact that all major roads pass right through the middle of small towns, they are not used to slow down when they are driving and entering a pueblo.
Fines are seldom given and modern radar machinery seems confined to the Mexico DF limits. Threats like that do not work in the more short-term oriented parts of the world anyway, a practical and immediate solution was needed.
So they created bumps. Not those sissy bumps you see in the rest of the world, but real, car wrecking bumps in all shapes and sizes. Some of these, like the ones above are no problem for us as they are smooth. But the serious ones can really break your bike if you are not prepared and do not almost stop completely. I guess that is the point, though a bit moot for bikes.
Some newer variations include 1-3 rows of metal domes, firmly attached to the ground. Sometimes local villagers (the ones that are not living in a 25 meter radius of the tope (Toh-puh)) manage to remove just enough so they can pass their vehicles at full speed, but most of the time they cover the entire road.
Whereas in the Netherlands, they would leave a gap for bicycles to pass safely, in Mexico this would invite drivers to use that gap. Actually even the shoulders of the road, so usually the topes are extended all the way across the dirt on the side. Some of the metal ones are quite dangerous, as the only ‘safe’ way to cross them on a bicycle is to approach them in a 45 degree angle and aim well. This is already a decent challenge, but of course in heavy traffic it takes on other dimensions – you also exit at the same angle if you managed not to fall over, so either while entering or exiting you end up in the middle of the lane.
If your angle is a few degrees off, your grip on the handle bars is not firm or the topes are too close together, there is a big chance you drop in front of some hungry diesel-stricken wheels. You can get off the bike and walk, but after the 4600th tope in a row, this gets old. Be warned for this authentic part of Mexican culture and you will still be amazed.
24th July 2009: Tulum to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 90km
It was hot though and though I felt a bit better, I was cursing a lot when I got a flat in the middle of the hot day and it came off . I already hated my new back tire. The old Schwalbe Marathon tyre was actually still good after almost 11,000km/ 7000miles, but my mum had brought a new foldable version, that I had left with her in The Netherlands before departure. Normally I am a firm believer in the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’ fix it’ adagio, but as we had never replaced any tires and I still had another foldable tyre, I decided to change the back one on my bike.
I love the Marathons and the foldable is very useful as it fits neatly on the bottom the Ortlieb bags, but it is much better if they stay there. They are a royal pain in the saddle-sored behind to get on the wheel the first time and it does not get much easier after that. I do not like the fact that I had more flat tires in the first week of using them than the first 6 months of the other one, it seems that there are more differences between the 2 types beside the missing metal wire to make it foldable.
Just before reaching the town I had gotten another flat that I could not fix as one tube exploded when the foldable tire went outside the rim when almost fully inflated. The spare tube we were carrying somehow got a hole on the inside of the wheel and would not hold on to the patches.
As one local motorist had already said that the Police would be able to help if needed, we decided that Ivana would cycle ahead and I would wait for her to return with the cops. Within 20 minutes a police pick-up came up to me and stopped on the side of the road. I walked up to them with my bike, but first had to identify myself.
‘What is your name?’ The officer asked surprisingly.
When I told him, he carefully compared my answer with the name that he had written in his notebook when Ivana told him about me. It took a minute or so, but after I also told him where I was from and that I really was the one that had sent Ivana for them to pick me up, he finally nodded and let me load Kowalski in the back. Apparently there were a lot of long-haired blond Dutchmen with a fully loaded bike with a flat tire just outside of the city limits and they had to take care not to pick up the wrong one…
Unlike the name suggests, FC Puerto does not have a harbour as it is inland. It is named after a revolutionary Zapatista from Mayan descent, who even had governed here for a short while. The city is still considered as a Maya ‘capital’ and the look and feel showed us that we had left the rich zone of Mexico.
Finding a place to camp in the spacious city with lawns everywhere turned out to be a bureaucratic problem. The police decided that it was not safe to camp with them and took us and our bikes to the Firemen. After long discussions on the radio with lots of code numbers (they seemed to have a special code for stranded Argentinean/Dutch BikeTravellers) it was decided that, no, we could not sleep inside or outside the fire station, either.
Meanwhile we had lost hours and it had become pitch dark, while I was feeling exhausted again. We finally ended up in the ‘Casa de Campesinos’, a small building with some mattresses, used by the local farmers coming from far away villages. I finally got to fix my bike while Ivana found some food and though we had the room to ourselves it was too hot to sleep properly…
25th July 2009: FC Puerto – Bacalar – 10km + a ride
After getting freshly squeezed juice and new tubes at the local bike shop, we headed out of the city. There were some very minor hills, and it was still relatively cool, but I totally crashed after 10km. Not in the sense of falling over or introducing Kowalski to a passing truck, but I simply could not cycle anymore. The flu had come back, I was overheating and could hardly sit down without passing out.
After a while a pick-up truck passed that picked us, well, up and took us all the way to Bacalar, almost 100km away. It not only saved me from committing high-temperature velocipedal suicide, but also took a lot of pressure off, distance- and time-wise.
Bacalar is one of the Pueblos Magicos, a list of 27 towns and cities in Mexico with special cultural or religious backgrounds, and that leave their visitors with a special feeling; in a positive way that is. We had only been to one other Magic Town, Patzcuaro, and that one was nice.
The centre is nice and they have a wonderful multicoloured lake where Ivana spent some hours floating, while I was resting in the cool breeze coming off it.
We stayed with Codrut, a friend of a CouchSurfing host in Bacalar. I spent most of the time resting and recovering and took a huge dose of anti flu and migraine pills. We decided to sleep outside on the porch, just on our mattresses as again it was too hot to be inside, and this time it wasn’t just me…
Here are some pix, so it might give you an idea of why so many gringos have bought all the land surrounding the lake:
Leaving Mexico for Belize
As Etta James would sing: At last.
But not with a feeling of relief, but with a little pain in our hearts, homesickness to a new home. We had spent 4 months in this amazing place and though we literally crossed it from North West to South East and from Sea level to the highest peak, after 3000km/1900Mi of cycling and more than 1300km of rides we still felt we had only tasted a drop of the cultural and natural waterfall Mexico has to offer.
We were very happy to be able to tell our friends and family that we had zero real problems. I might have had the (swine?) flu, nearly overdosed on tasteless tortillas at times; we had some of the hottest nights in our lives and Ivana almost got run over by a truck.
We also met hundreds of kind people, saw historic sights, swam in sinkholes, felt like Indiana Jones, ate the best food, overdosed on fruits we had never even heard of before, camped in the desert, sailed between dolphins, visited magic towns, enjoyed the lazy beach life and climbed a glacier to the highest point between Canadian Mount Logan and Pico Cristobal Colon in the Columbian Andes.
Thank you, Mexico.
Next stop: Belize!
5th April: Point Loma, San Diego – Tijuana, Mexico
It took only a few hours to get through San Diego, over some bike paths and then into San Isidrio, the border town. We had been warned that we should not try to use the pedestrian crossing at the border, having read horror stories about crunched bikes and bags.
So we were happy to see a sign that basically said: Bikepath to Mexico, not for pedestrians. That sounded like a plan, but alas, the short path ended up in front of the pedestrian turnstiles. Se we headed back up the ‘one-way’ short path and decided to take the final 100m of the busy Highway 5 instead. We cycled over some empty lanes and waited until we were stopped by either a human or physical barrier.
100 meter later, we saw only Spanish signs and saw people walking everywhere. Apparently we had entered Mexico, through a one way border: no luggage check, no passport check, no questions, no sign ‘You are Leaving the US, please call again’ nor ‘Welcome to Mexico’!
This was not only very weird, but also posed two practical problems:
- We had to leave the white slip of our temporary visa at US customs, to prove we had left within the allowed time.
- We needed to get a Mexican tourist cad, kind of like a visa, which would allow us to stay for 180 days and go further South than Ensenada (100km South, the furthest most US citizens go and where this card is not needed).
You would think that there would be more people crossing the border with a visa, but apparently not. After asking several people, we were told to cross the Mexican side of the Highway on a footbridge, follow the stream of Mexicans trying to get into the US.
And lo and behold, just before the border entering the US again there was one young guy looking cool in a US uniform on the other side of a big gate. I handed him our passports, he ripped out the 2 small pieces of paper and added them to a larger pile already in his other hand. That was it. No exit stamp, no receipt, just a guy collection visa papers and who knows where they end up. Guess we will find out whenever we want to enter the US again.
Next problem to solve was to find the place to buy our tourist card. We crossed the highway again, noting the hundreds of waiting cars, seemingly not having moved an inch since we crossed the bridge before. Guess that entering the US is a whole lot harder than leaving it.
The funny (as in funny, interesting, not funny, haha) thing was that last night we watched ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, the apocalytic movie about the freezing effect of Global warming. In it, the US basically freezes overnight and the Mexicans have to close he border as everybody tries to flee South. Only after relieving Mexico from all debt, the US citizens are let in (meanwhile, many already cross illegally..).
We were told to go back on the highway, to we cycled back, against traffic to the ‘border’ and only about 50m before we were about to cycle back in the US (without being checked?). The last of a series of small offices contained a bored man who, after repeatedly asking, was going to sell us our ‘card’, which was basically a receipt. They had put the standard ‘90’ days, but some penstrokes of the official quickly turned this into 180 days.
It had taken us 1.5 hours to arrange these things that in any other border would have taken 2 minutes and 5 meters of travelling, and we made it just in time to the local McDonalds. Not that we were planning to eat there. We had stayed clear of all fastfood (besides Subways) during our 6 months in the US, and after seeing ‘SuperSize Me’ a few days ago at Martin’s place we were very happy we did!
No, we had arranged to meet our new hosts here. CouchSurfing knows no borders and we were picked up by two young guys in a car, who guided us through some busy and some not so busy but very steep streets to their house on top of a hill. 5 more flights of stairs and we were in the room, looking out over the odd bordertown.
From the room you could see the border. Not physically, but the line and difference between the houses on both sides is clearly visible (tip: check Google Earth, you will be amazed).
A few days in Tijuana, an over-feared and underrated city
We stayed a few days with Paul (pronounced Pah-ool here) and ‘Chino’. It gave us the time to see a bit of the city that is feared so much in all US media, (even South Park calls it ‘hell’ ;-)).
It is all exaggerated, which is doing the Mexican economy a lot of harm. There is a drug war going on with quite some murders, but unless you are a heavy user, dealer or police officer, you will not be involved. Yes, we saw some police lights and heard some sirens in the night, but not more than in any US city of this size (1.5 million people). We never felt unsafe, even in darker areas, at night, in the suburbs, on the beach. Nowhere.
You notice that you are in a poor country, but what we did see were a lot of happy people, cheering us on on our bikes, asking questions.
They are living so close that taking one wrong turn basically would get them across the fictitious line!
I would invite everybody to enjoy the proximity of such a great and different place instead of getting scared by the remnants of the fear–economy…
And I do not mean the popular red light district that seems to attract the most Americans, but the Museum of Modern Art complex we visited (with a nice cinematic photo exhibition), many great taquerias (taco shops) and a nice central market with delicious food, snacks and other stuff.
Paul had two passports and works as a teacher on the US side. As he has a small motorcycle, he can avoid the waiting lines at the border and can go to work in the US in only 15 minutes…
In the evening they took us to have a tea and see the beaches and the border. It was sad to hear that until recently there were ‘border-dinners, where Mexicans that had been allowed into the US, would come to the North side of the border, to see, touch and eat with their relatives and loved ones South of the border. The new fence, planned all the way to Texas makes it impossible.
Just a few miles away, but worlds apart. Again we felt thankful for the liberties we both enjoy, something that the many people that can but never do travel abroad never seem to realize.
9th April 2009: Tijuana – Primo Tapia, hill, fall, flat, toll. 42km.
After they guided us to the start of the Highway, we said goodbye to the guys and started climbing up the 250m (800ft) high hill. It was steep and hot and there was much traffic, but they kept a safe distance. What cycles up must freewheel down, so we enjoyed a nice downhill into Puerto de Rosarito, the tourist place at the beach, lined with new condos and junk food places.
We only stopped to eat our peanut butter sandwiches and then headed onto the toll road. There are 2 roads from Rosarito, the toll road (‘Cuota’) and the free road (‘Libre’). The toll road already starts near Tijuana, but they will not allow cyclists there and taking it would mean many extra miles anyway.
Just past Rosarito we could enter the toll-road without problems. I was slowing down near an exit for Ivana to catch up with me when two cars passed really close without signalling their exit. There was a very small but vertical ramp along the road which kept me from being able to move out of the way.
I managed to keep my balance for a second, but then tumbled over the ramp, down the slope behind it. Kowalski followed a second later, also doing a nice tumble, coming to a halt next to me. My arms were bleeding a bit and I had itchy, pointy things sticking in me all over my body.
After Ivana caught up (“did you fall?” Duh..) and helped me get the bike back on the road we continued up a small hill, but soon I noticed that the going was tough and saw my that my front tire was almost empty.
So on the shoulder of the Toll-Road, I fixed my 2nd flat tire in over 8000km. Yet another staple. Of the 5 flat tires we have had between us, 3 were caused by staples, one by a nail and one by a sharp piece of rock.
We approached the toll booths and were going to pass one lane with a giant red ‘X’ on top, but the attendant/guard came running towards us, rifle loosely over his shoulder. He pointed us towards the sidewalk and asked if we could walk there and then ride again once passed. They do not mind that cyclists use the road, but do not want to get in trouble as all lanes are monitored by video.
It was a pleasant ride, sunny but not too hot, and the traffic was not too bad. we passed many areas in development, the Fox studios (where Titanic and Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed, the pirate ship was still there) and a giant Jesus statue looking out over the houses of the new rich.
We could use the shoulder all the time, passing those strange signs with a cyclist crossed out..
We turned off at a small place called Primo Tapia, where a WarmShowers host named El Lobo lives. he greeted us and we had a nice evening with him, discussing life in Mexico and the US and enjoying one of Ivana’s curries…
10th April: Primo Tapia – Ensenada, 60km
‘My knee is hurting a lot’. her left knee was very painful and she could hardly cycle, even though yesterday, on a similar hill, she had no problems, so maybe she twisted it somehow.
We continued slowly until we reached Ensenada, passing cliffs and hidden beaches. Sometimes we could see the ‘Libre’ road below and were happy that we were not riding on that shoulder-less road.
‘Did you get permission to ride the Toll Road?’ he asked.
‘Yes, in Rosarito’, I replied truthfully, and then showed him the scars and dried blood on my arm. ‘Besides, yesterday a car cut me off the free road, so the police told us the toll road was safer and better’, I added less truthfully.
He was intrigued and made no problems and told us to be safe. Ivana was going very slow, even though a strong wind was almost pushing us forward. even though we just started cycling Baja California, it might be time to take another break…
It was time to leave our friend named Alaska and meet another partner for the next few months, named Canada. We had so many good times and many bad times. It is funny how even a fictional line on a map can define a relationship. We felt like we had to say goodbye to family…
We had stayed another day in Tok, it was just too perfect to camp for free, behind a 24/7 gasstation and next to the supermarket. We had to take care of our belongings as there was a group of drunk locals nearby. We have noticed this often lately: small groups of native Americans, who walk or sit around with paperbags or just with a bottle of scotch. It is a sad sight and a result of many bad political decisions in a long row.
We met a few other travelers who stayed the second night on the same camp; a young cyclist from Quebec, who was on his way home and a couple from Argentina (www.amunches.com) who were at the end of their 6 year journey. It was nice for Ivana to speak some Spanish and to drink some mate, but also interesting to see that they were clearly tired. Tired of travelling, tired of telling their story. The next morning they left early, but they had left Ivana some rainpants, though they were not really suitable for cycling as we would find out soon..
We left with dry weather, but quickly the hills and the rain started. Ivana’s pants ripped and one leg came off. We stayed at a very wet campground near a lake that probably was very pretty if you could see it. Only a few days later (fortunately) we read the report of fellow cyclists Tim & Cindie, who had seen a bear while camping here. We had been less ‘bearanoid’ as we had simply not seen any bears in Alaska outside Denali park, which in some ways is more like the Serengeti than the ‘real world’…
The next day we were completely soaked again and Ivana was ready to quit and fly home to sunny Argentina… Just in time we passed a visitor centre for the Tetlin National Wildlife refuge. Two ladies, who lived all their life in the native village of Northway and worked as volunteers, came to the rescue. They gave us tea, let us dry our clothes and even prepared a few delicious sandwiches with salmon. Just before we left, they even gave some chocolate. It is people like these that we will take with us in our heart when leaving Alaska.. Read more