As mentioned in the previous post, we have parked our bikes for a few weeks as both our mums are visiting us on the Yucatan Peninsula. After the ruins of Chichen Itza & Ek Balam, it is now time for the beach!
Playa del Carmen, overcrowded and overrated
“Don’t go to Cancun, move to Playa de Carmen!”, was the advice of friends, websites and guidebooks. “More European, more relaxed, less commerce and more affordable than Cancun.”, were the reasons given.
Finally we found a spot, only to find much more expensive hotels than in downtown Cancun. Once we found a decent room (3 beds, Ivana & I can share), we checked out the main street. It was filled to the top with souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants and hundreds of semi-relaxed tourists, many of them, yes, European. Large clubs and uber-cool lounge bars were promoted, while Guatemalan art was being sold for western art gallery prices.
Finally we discovered some real food for almost downtown Cancun prices, sold on the streets close to the Central Plaza. Great juice and tortas, the Mexican sandwiches with a choice of meat and/or vegetables and different types of very spicy and tasty sauces.
The beach is very nice at Playa and the water is green-blue as in the brochures, but it’s like that all along the Costa Maya.
The girls were happy with the sea and sand, but I rather wanted to use the last day we had a car to see one more ancient Maya City and took off alone.
More ruins, Coba solo
Coba has the same charm that Ek Balam has and that Chichen Itza is lacking: the ‘Indiana Jones’ sense that you are discovering the ancient hidden cities yourself while strolling through the lush Jungle.
The structures of Coba are not as neatly organised and lined up as in Chichen Itza. From the first group, which contains the large ‘Templo de las Iglesias’, the temple of the Churches, it is more than a kilometre walk through the jungle if you want to see some of the other big ones.
Several dozen sacbe’s, ancient Mayan road crossed the surrounding jungle to get to Coba, an important hub in times gone by. Only a few percent of the estimated 6500 (!) structures of Coba have been excavated, and many of these not even fully and the jungle has remained intact, which is good news for the many different animals living there.
The largest Maya structure (of the entire Peninsula) is called Nohoch Mul, better known as the Great Pyramid and its eroded steps leading to the 42m (140ft) high top can fortunately still be climbed. A thick rope is attached to help the brave people down that made it up and realized that it was quite high and the steps narrow and down-sloping
There will be several persons on the Pyramid, but the views are great: jungle as far as the eye can see. The sweet views are spiced with the knowledge of the thousands of hidden treasures still to be found.
Tulum: busy ruins and empty beach
I was just too late to make a quick visit to the most popular Maya ruins: Tulum. As it is close to Cancun and Playa de Carmen, and the site is open and compact, bus loads of tourists come here every day.
I saw a huge line of them coming out of the exit and caught a glimpse of the famous Castillo, with its postcard location on the edge of the sea. I was not allowed in, but used my time to view some nearby rough beaches, totally deserted.
It was time to return to Playa de Carmen and head over to our next destination: an island!
Isla Cozumel, CouchSurfing and anniversary on the divers and cruise-ship paradise
One part of our way of travelling that we wanted to share with our mums was the use of the CouchSurfing and WarmShowers network, where travellers host other travellers. We managed to find a great host on the Island of Cozumel, that agreed to host all 4 of us.
Ivan not only provided us with a great place to sleep, but also gave us a quick tour of the rough east side of the diver’s paradise, with some great swimming beaches and blowholes. The next day he took Ivana, Cristi and myself for a nice little snorkel tour, while my mum relaxed in a hammock near a pool. Life should not get much harder than this
It was wonderful to have such a perfect example of a great CouchSurfing host to demonstrate to our mums a taste of the hospitality we have encountered all over Mexico, USA and Canada, made possible by the technology and the mentality of our generation, but which has spread far beyond that.
Cozumel is a popular stop for huge cruise-ships and we saw many pass during the few days we were there. But to see further than the shopping tours along the silver-shops and the basic restaurants, you need to spend some days there.
For example it gives you the chance to see the local Sunday dance on the main square, where the local couples dress up and play to the music of a live band, while the sun sets behind a blue and purple sky.
Next and final part of the Mother-ship series coming up: An Island of Women!
Stay tuned, it will be up and running soon as long as the Internet gods are willing
CouchSurfing host Ivan works with his US girlfriend; together they help tourists rent great places on the Island of Cozumel.
Though there is always a lot of work to do, he still enjoys the small island he grew up on, snorkelling, relaxing, walking his dogs and showing friend around his little paradise.
Meeting old friends in Cancun
It turned out that they did and as there were problems with their ticket, the couple stayed 2 nights at our place, our first experience as a WarmShowers host. After we found out that hector & Veronika were living in Cancun, we told them: cool, you might be able to return the favour in about 2 years
Fast forward to June 2009…
It was great to see Hector & Veronika again. They took us to their small apartment and the following week we spent most of the time together. They helped us out buying some new things, finding a hostel for our mums who would arrive at the end of the week and showed us around in Cancun.
Veronika is an experienced massage therapist and a professional dancer in the famous Maria Felix dance company, performing several times per week in exclusive resorts. We managed to get smuggled in one night and saw their amazing performance, showing the dances and clothing of several regions of Mexico with an incredible power. Here are some photos from that show (more photos in the photo section here).
Relaxing at the beach
Though we had ridden the last part in a truck, we still felt we deserved a few relaxing days after 10,611km (6600mi) of cycling from Alaska. We had seen the beaches with Francisco and Daniel, but Hector took us for some quality time around and in the sea, here are some great photos he took of us:
The mother ship has landed…
It had had taken some planning and headaches, but we had managed. Both our mums thought that 2-3 years away from home was too long, so we had decided to invite them to meet us somewhere on our trip and show them a bit of our way of life.
Cancun seemed perfect as it was about as far from Argentina as from the Netherlands and it had a large international airport.
We had booked the flights (goodbye travel budget :)) just in the week before the announcement of the outbreak of the ‘Swineflu’, but by now most of the hype was gone and all seemed safe.
Both mums had no extra-continental travel experience but both had to change planes in strange countries (USA & Chile/Panama), which was far scarier than any flu. Lo and behold, within a few hours of each other both had arrived. Completely exhausted, but happy to see us. We had parked our bikes at Hector’s house, time for some touring!
Hector works during the days, in computer repair, fixing laptops and desktops, both hardware as well as software. But late at night, when the heat of Cancun takes a rest, he goes out to run on the bike path leading to the Zona Hotelera.
Hector was part of the Mexican Mountain Bike demonstration team during the Atlanta Olympics and has biketravelled in India, but now he focuses on running. Not just for fun or to stay fit, he actually earns part of his income by competing –and finishing 1st, 2nd or 3rd- in the many prize runs on the Yucatan Peninsula.
(Read Hector’s blog (in Spanish) here.)
Hiram manages the family restaurant, together with his brothers, parents and uncle. ‘El Balcon’ is widely known by the local customers and they line up every weekend, not minding a long wait to be seated.
Hiram also plays guitar in his church and loves to travel, having backpacked through Europe with his friend Leandro. He is a wonderful CouchSurfing host as well
Cycling through the outskirts of Metepec was still ok, but when we reached the main road from Toluca to Mexico, we had to use all senses we had to stay alive. We stopped at a gas station 20km out of town, as it was no use to try to cycle into the city any farther. There was a big climb ahead, the toll roads was completely full with cars and the free road even fuller, but then with trucks as well, neither having a decent shoulder for cycling.
We got a ride from a nice guy who worked for a TV station in the city. He took us over the high pass and down to one of the biggest cities in the world: depending on your definition, around 20 million people live in the valley!
He dropped us off at his office, conveniently situated near the ‘periferico’, the huge highway, circling all around the centre of Mexico City. We were on our way to Ulises, yet another CouchSurfing host. According to the map, it was only about 10km to his house.
The periferico was the logical and fastest way, but filled with fast traffic as well, which we were not. Luckily, there was another road right beside it, with traffic lights and less hurry. As we still had some leftover free miles, we made it to Ulises’ area quickly, only interrupted by a taxi strike that had blocked some roads. Just after passing the blocked area, a TV reporter on a motorcycle did a quick interview with us, right on the street, not sure if it made it to the evening news.
We made it safely to Ulises’ house, but could have had some serious trouble as several metal drain covers were missing on the road, exposing holes without visible bottom, and 60cm/2ft across.
Ulises and his family welcomed us with open arms and treated us to some more Mexican dishes. Forget about Taco Bell, if you love real food (duh), you need to visit Mexico sometimes, as every region has its own different tasty specialties.
Ulises is studying engineering, specializing in the movements of the earth underneath the large buildings in the historic centre. he could as well been a professional guide if he wanted, as he shared his encyclopaedic knowledge about the culture and history of the City.
It was a shame that we had to rush, as there are many things to see in the city, that actually consists of many smaller towns and neighbourhoods, all absorbed into the giant metropolis, but with their own character and attractions.
We ate a great and cheap lunch at the huge UNAM University complex, actually a city in itself, where the future of Mexico is being shaped. In the afternoon we visited the market and historic centre of Xochimilco, in the South part of the city.
Ivana took a quick lesson how to prepare the nopales, the flat cactus leaves that is a popular vegetable. We relaxed and took a Gondola tour through the ancient canals that are still open and of course enjoyed more paletas and drank a ‘pulque, the ancient fermented drink that is still popular.
It was low season and not busy, but besides a few other boats with tourists, there are usually also boats selling food, drinks and souvenirs, and even some Mariachi boats with a complete orchestra that will play a song for a small charge. There are party boats where the youth come to drink and dance and complete families have reunions and a good and relaxed time, while floating slowly on the ancient waters.
You would have no idea that you are in one of the largest cities in the world, that was completely shut down a few weeks before because of fear for the ‘swineflu’.
Life in the city
There are enough sights, museums and monuments to keep you busy for weeks, if not months in Mexico City. The centre is well-known, the main square (where photographer Spencer Tunick once captured a record 18,000 nude people, a shock to the Catholic country) with the nearby ruins, government buildings, huge flag and the grand cathedral. As we had little time to do the city justice, we opted to see some of the lesser known pretty places where people actually live and work. There are parks, a small Chinatown, many big office buildings and all kinds of museums and interesting buildings.
We walked and rode the bus and the infamous subway between all of them and noticed that:
- nobody was wearing the mouth covers we saw in the news, just some people serving in restaurants &
- we did not get robbed, pick pocketed, kidnapped or molested once, how weird is that!
In the evening we visited some older towns that had been swallowed by the city. Friendly Tlalpan was as quiet as any small country town and beautiful Coyoacan should be one of the Pueblos Magicos, as pretty and relaxed as it is. Nope, again, no robberies and the air was clean.
10th June 2009: Interview and into thin air!
The next morning we were interviewed by some nice guys, for a new online magazine, called Atractor; the interview can be seen online here.
We had told Ulises that we wanted to see the Paso de Cortez, the famous mountain pass between the mountains Izta & Popo, where Cortez made his way to the valley. Ulises advised against cycling out of the city and as he loved the place, he offered to bring us there with his small car.
After lunch (Chicken with green mole!) we loaded our bikes on the bike rack, just fit all the bags inside and headed out the city. We stopped at one of the many handmade ice-cream stalls and continued up and over several nice little towns, situated on grassy fields.
The actual road up to the pass was steep, but paved and even though it rained, we slowly rose above most of the clouds, feeling happy we were not cycling/pushing our bikes through the rainy forest. The pass and a visitor centre are at about 3500m/12,000ft altitude, but the huts and camping spaces are higher.
We continued on a slippery and rocky unpaved road and made it all the way up to a large hut. It seemed deserted, but after knocking repeatedly, the guardian Miguel opened up and let us in. We had brought our tent, but for a few pesos, we could stay in the cozy hut, so we opted for that instead, enjoying the sunset behind Popocatepetl (‘Popo’), with 5452m/18,000ft the 2nd highest mountain of Mexico.
Miguel enjoys living between the mountains and had taken thousands of pictures of the mountains and the wildlife on it and showed us many great ones on his laptop, while we ate some snacks together for dinner.
Popo, the warrior and Izta, the sleeping woman
Popo can no longer be climbed, as it is still very active and the constant fumes are lethal. Popocatepetl means ‘smoking mountain’ and only 4 years ago a large eruption shot 5km into the air keeping 30 million people that will be impacted by a larger blast awake…
Iztacihuatl (‘Izta’) on the North side of the pass and with 5220m only a few hundred meters lower, is dormant and still climbable, though the glaciers are shrinking. We did not have any glacier gear so just stuck to enjoying the magnificent mountains from the pass.
There are a lot of variations on the legend of Popo & Izta. Basically warrior Popo was in love with Izta, but was told by her parents that she had died when he was in battle. Izta was told the same about Popo and died of grief. Popo returned to find his loved one dead and laid her on the land, while resting sadly besides her.
This is why Iztacihuatl is known as ‘The Sleeping Lady’, as on clear days after snow, the mountain scarily resembles a woman lying down on her back, with the classic Volcanoe-shaped Popo at her feet. The several summits are known as the Knees, the Head and the breast.
The next morning we woke up early to see the sunrise with Miguel. It was cloudy, but far away we could see the perfect shape of the summit of Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain of Mexico (and 3rd of North America, after Denali & Mount Logan). As to salute the sun, Popo shot a small eruption into the multicoloured sky.
We love seeing the cities and how the people live in faraway countries, but natural shows like these always impress more than anything else…
To protect the bike as well as the car, we mountain-biked down to the pass while Ulises drove the car with the luggage down. We loaded our bikes up at the pass and said our goodbyes and thank-you’s to Ulises who had helped us out so much.
The east side of the Paso de Cortez is unpaved but the first few kilometres the smooth volcanic road was gentle enough. However, once we entered the forest again the road became horrible, slowing us down to protect the bikes, luggage and our spines. Big rocks were on the road and it was impossible to go fast, even though it was so steep we had to brake constantly. This lasted an hour or so, and if you ever are thinking about it: do NOT try to cycle up this side unless you are a professional mountainbiker without luggage…
We had lost a lot of altitude, but luckily there were a few free miles left when we hit the pavement and we zoomed through the fields towards Cholula. Usually we aim for the church if we want a place to have lunch as usually the Catholics have claimed the best and culturally richest parts of all Latin cities and normally the places are very beautiful.
In Cholula we had to search a bit for the pretty zocalo as Conquistador Cortes had almost 40 churches built after taking the city, but we ended up in the park, eating and relaxing from the downhill, only disturbed by a series of processions that came with terrible music and loud bomba’s, very noisy explosives shot into the air.
We had aimed to get to Puebla but stayed in Cholula that night with another CouchSurfer that offered a last-minute couch. We almost passed the giant Piramida Tepanapa, unnoticed as it is so big and covered with grass, that it looks like a huge hill. As often, there is a Catholic Church built on top, but they also might not have known that there was the largest pyramid on earth underneath.
Cholula is nowadays connected with Puebla, but in order to see more of the latter, we decided to move to Puebla, to see the often acclaimed city with our own eyes… We still had to rush, but my feet had started itching when I had seen the highest mountain in Mexico from afar… Would there maybe be time to… ? Tune back in to WorldOnaBike next time
Kowalski! Status report!
- Our bikes survived the downhill, though Ivana got a flat tire on the sharp rocks there.
- Knees and back are ok, but we are getting a bit nervous as we have to be in Cancun within 2 weeks…
- Total km cycled (excluding rides): 10,370 (about 6500 miles)
- More pictures of Xochimilco and Popocatepetl can be found on the picture page: http://harry.biketravellers.com/photos . as always, larger versions of the images appear automagically when clicking on the small versions (when reading this on http://WorldOnaBike.com). Try it!
We were dropped off in the morning at our favourite pick-up spot: the tollbooth of the quota. For once we were not the only persons there without a car, as a demonstration of angry teachers was about to commence.
The toll roads in Mexico are very expensive, most truck drivers and definitely the underpaid teachers cannot afford to use them, so they were going to occupy the booths and let everybody go free as a protest.
Unfortunately the guy that Ivana asked to give us a ride to Morelia had already paid. When he stopped to load our bikes in the back of the truck, he noticed the few dozen of people waiting and carefully asked ‘How many people need a ride again?’
We had not expected to get to Morelia so soon, but it was nice to have some time to cycle through the old city. Morelia is one of the reasons people should visit Mexico: it has a wonderful historic centre, full of culture and with loads of buildings that are older than anything in the US. The university city is full of young people and there are plenty nice places to eat, drink or party if needed.
We had been invited by our new CouchSurfing friend Monica to stay with her family, we were already the 3rd cycling couple they had hosted. Monica and her family took great care of us and we stayed much longer than planned. We still had a deadline to meet, but the generosity of Monica, her mother Yolanda, father Juan and brother Juan Pablo kept us relaxed.
Yolanda is not just a great conversationalist with a lot of knowledge about history, culture and politics, but also a great cook. She surprised us every day with new local dishes, made with fresh and tasty natural ingredients only.
A welcome relief from the fast-food stores that are popping up everywhere in Mexico and from the pre-processed chemical packages that are sold as ‘food’ in the many small supermarkets. She even gives free classes about nutrition in schools and every meal was a feast.
We got to rest and recover from the hot Mexican coast My cut healed well and left only a small scar in the shape of a ‘7’, which is actually pretty cool
Patzcuaro, the magic town
When we mentioned that we would have to leave soon, they said that we could not go without seeing Patzcuaro, and they took us to this historic town between Uruapan & Morelia: one of the few dozen ‘Pueblos Magicos’, a list of less than 30 ‘magical cities’ of Mexico. Places that give you that special feeling…
We enjoyed the lake, ate real quesadillas on the market, had handmade ice-cream at the main square and admired the historic buildings and culture. Many local artists are producing and selling their artesanias on the streets and in little shops around town.
As in more historic places in Mexico it is illegal to have big loud advertising in the centre. All shops have the same colours and use the same fonts to advertise their name outside, which secures a wonderful low-key relaxed feeling.
So even though Burger King might have infiltrated in the main square commercial zone, you won’t know it is there until you are almost inside. But why eat there anyway, when there are delicious huge quesedillas for USD$0,50 and tons of unknown but cheap and tasty fruits instead?
Goodbye to Morelia
Monica had already taken us a few times to some nice dinners and walks in the historic centre of Morelia and even organised a CouchSurfing meeting for us.
It was hard to say goodbye to this generous family, as many times before we felt we had taken more than we could give in return. We felt privileged to be a part of the family for while and to see yet another side of the diverse Mexican culture.
Back on the road again, heading for DF. Paletas & hills.
If you are in another country and you are heading for ‘Mexico’, you are heading for the country. Once you are there and you are still heading for ‘Mexico’, everybody knows you are going to the capital with the same name. I must admit that I knew nothing much more about Mexico City than that it is one of the largest cities in the world, with accompanying pollution and crimes. Recently, it was known as the ‘Swine flu capital’, though all news sources in Mexico report that the flu originated in the US, so who should you believe?
Anyway, as we always like to see things for ourselves rather than trusting media copycats, we decided that we should at least try to visit the Capital.
Monica & Yolanda guided us out of Morelia and pointed us to the new toll road. Unfortunately the arrogant boss of the accompanying complex would not let us cycle, nor leave us waiting for a ride. All the guards said that once the chief would be away, we would be fine. In the end we managed to ask for a ride and get our bikes loaded on a truck while the driver was paying his toll.
The car dropped us off at Zinepecuaro, where we enjoyed the first of many ‘paletas’, locally made ice-lollies made with big chunks of pure fruit, like Guanabana, coconut, pineapple or my favourite, mango with chile: cold, sweet and spicy!
A steep road headed up to the main toll road between Guadelajara & Mexico city. The toll booth attendant did not even see us when we sneaked past. We could try to catch a ride here, but decided that we try some highland cycling instead. We regretted that soon as the next 15km was constant and very steep uphill.
Even though we were at about 2400m/8000ft, it was hot and we had run out of water on the long climb. At the summit we got a bag full of sweet strawberries from a street vendor, which we enjoyed between the pine forests of the highlands.
After an initial downhill there was another smaller hill to climb but then we could enjoy our well-earned ‘free miles’, all the way down to the city of Maravatio. We cycled into town and saw the sign of the Cruz Roja, the red Cross.
If you are ever cycling in a town and have no idea where to stay safely and cheaply, here are some recommended choices, in no particular order, but generally valid all over the world:
- The fire station (Bomberos in Latin America). They usually have nothing much to do and enjoy the company, usually have some extra rooms or at least a safe place to camp
- The Red Cross: same as the Bomberos, + benefit of providing medical help if needed
- The Police: even though sometimes they have a bad name, generally speaking it is a lot safer to stay between police men than between the thieves they are trying to catch
We got some water from the friendly nurses at the Cruz Roja and cooked our spaghetti outside the main entrance. Just after had put up our tent, the team leader cam out and offered us to stay inside instead and use the WiFi as well, which was of course gladly accepted.
It was nice to see young (most were between 16 & 20) volunteers, trying to help out in the community, while being educated.
The following day we still had some free miles saved and the kilometres passed quickly through gentle hills and green fields passing over small towns.
It was still a long way to the City and so we stopped at the next tollbooth, where we got a ride fairly quickly. Fortunately we passed the busy madness of Toluca city, and got dropped off right in Metepec, where Monica’s aunt & uncle live.
When we cycled to the charming main square to call them for directions, a group of young cyclists came up and started asking questions about our trip. They were really interested and also used the opportunity to practice their English. They guided us through the small streets, stopping cars to let us pass easily and even called Monica’s family when needed. It was great to have such a young and enthusiastic cycling escort!
We were received with open arms by Laura & Roberto and their son Beto in their house outside of town. To the west we could see the impressive massif of Volcan de Toluca, to the east were the high mountains separating us from one of the largest urban zones in the world, currently feared by the world because of some strange virus… Mexico City, here we come!
It felt weird to cycle fully loaded once again. Once we closed the door of Brian’s apartment behind us we were back on the road, even if it was just for 5km
We headed into the Marina on the North side of La Paz as agreed with Michael & Deborah. They had come over for dinner the night before; I had prepared a kilo of shrimps that Brian had told us to use. It was spiced up with a jalapeno seasoning and Ivana had cooked an excellent curry. It was goodbye to a large kitchen again, as the Good News (the name of the boat) had a very small kitchen area and as we would often not be all awake at the same time, we would not really cook big meals anyway.
We started unpacking the bikes on the pier and I tried to make the bikes as small as possible, taking of the pedals, lowering the seats and turning the handlebars. We managed to tie both bikes and some bags at the front of the ship and the rest of the bags went inside, under our little makeshift bed next to the kitchen.
The last tests of the autopilot did not go 100% well, so we decided to do more test the next morning to prevent going around in circles later. This meant that we had to sleep at sea for the first time on our trip, but . The weather was nice and we had no problem with the calm waves, but the heat was keeping us awake.
The next level: Off to Puerto Vallarta!
The next morning we really took off. Michael fixed the autopilot and after some restarts it worked wonderful. There was not much wind so we had to use the engine most of the time. We were just passed the port of Pichilingue (named after the Dutch port of Vlissingen!) when I saw some big as well as small things jumping out of the water.
The big things turned out to be huge Manta Rays. Most of them were just cruising along, with only their two different coloured wingtips sticking out of the water: one side is light and the other is black as are their belly/back. But others made big jumps and floated more than a foot or two above water before falling back into the sea.
Michael thought that they might jump like this to squash parasites upon impact. Having grown up in a low grade video game era (cough..commodore..cough..64.cough :)), I just felt we were entering the next level.
The smaller critters were flying fish, though they looked more like walking fish, staying very close to the water surface. We were still feeling ok, but were fearing seasickness the moment we would leave the safe coast and head into open water…
We sailed through the evening and anchored in a small bay, totally trusting our radar, GPS and depth meter (I am pretty sure there are more suitable terms for all of the things I write, but I am a rather complete Nautical N00b, as I usually stay away from sea-level as far as possible :))
Cleaning the dinghy and the first dolphin shows
We had been lazily enjoying the first part and had slept well, but in the morning we had our first job to do: clean the dinghy! After only a few weeks in the water, a lot of stuff had grown on the bottom of the rubber boat and it took several hours and hard labour to scrape it off on the sandy beach and then row it back to the Good News.
As a reward we got to see our first dolphin shows soon after: a large group of playful dolphins appeared on the horizon and soon they crossed our path, jumping out of the water as they passed. We all stood on deck, applauding when there was yet another high jump.
The next few days we would joke about the ‘10 o’ clock & 5 o’ clock show’ as there seemed to be a contest going on somewhere, with many groups participating. Some of them far away, others swam next to our boat and seemed to enjoy racing the Good News!
Night Vision & high powers
As we had helped successfully with raising, lowering and changing the sails and I have plenty of GPS experience, the captains trusted us to watch the boat at night. We took 2 hours shifts, with the other 3 persons sleeping.
It was peaceful and intimidating at the same time, sailing through the dark night, with hardly any difference between the water and the sky above it. Just the sound of the small waves hitting the bow and the wind in the sails in complete darkness, save a small light at the mast and the glow of the radar and GPS screens… The graveyard shift was hard and regularly I had to stand up the bench with my face into the wind to stay awake.
The 3rd night we suddenly noticed some lights ahead and got on the radio to find some sleepy Mexican fishermen floating on a couple of boats, each a few kilometres apart. As Michael knew they use huge nets, we tried to find out where they had dropped them and fortunately Ivana’s Spanish speaking skills were available. Still we barely missed some buoys, but nothing got stuck in the engine.
It was an eerie sight, looking underwater: with goggles, I could see the rays of sunlight disappearing into an endless depth, from light to black, erasing any sense of distance. It was refreshing though
We also had some time to talk about deeper meanings of life and travel. As Michael & Deborah were active evangelists, our conversation inevitably hit the religion bump. We believe in a separation of church and state, freedom of religion as well as from religion, and politically and socially –human rights- we were clearly also on opposite ends.
Michael was sure that there was a deeper meaning behind our journey and miscellaneous ‘talents’, even though I assured him, that we are simple, independent people and do not work by decree of Higher Powers. We would have some interesting email conversations afterwards as well, agreeing to disagree.
Still we had developed a tight friendship over the past days. Clearly even deep-rooted basic beliefs are not strong enough to hold same-minded travellers apart.
Michael had it planned well and we entered the bay of Puerto Vallarta in the late morning. We were happy we had had the opportunity to live the cruiser’s life for a few days and even happier that neither of us had gotten sick. Still it felt good to have some solid ground under our feet.
They decided to stay a night in the marina and as we were crewmembers, we also got our complimentary day pass to the accompanying resort. This meant the s-word! Swimming-pool!
We flashed our cards to anyone around, shopped in the supermarket and spend some hours near and in the swimming pools. We almost felt one of ‘them’, if not for the fact that we sipped water from our Polar Bottle instead of Mojitos cocktails and did not spend that night on our million dollar air-conditioned boat, but in our hot tent on a deserted parking lot…
It was time to fix Kowalski & Greeny up, as we had to mutilate them to get them strapped to the boat 4 days ago. We re-connected all bits and loaded them up. We had bought some Good-Bye drinks and wished our new friends a safe journey South.
Though we still did not know which road to take it was clear that it was time to hit the road again. We have to be in Cancun in 5 weeks time to pick up our mums from the airport. Mexico is simply huge and there is so much to see everywhere. Even with some rides, we will never be able to make this distance, roughly 3200km/2000mi, in time, so we need to make some choices soon..
Will we make it? Any way, Central Mexico, here we come!
Bill is a master in entering curses in his sentences whenever he talks about his life, his neighbours, his countrymen, both from the US as well as Mexico, his health or anything in particular. But behind all those words is a nice guy in his late sixties, who spends his time in a small oasis in the Mexican desert, trying to forget about his back pain and loving his 4 cats (‘You’re such a good cat!’), while supplying the other gringos with satellite TV.
He used to live closer to the sea, “but the ‘100-year’ storm was coming every few years and I woke up in the water, while being on the #$%@&*! second floor in the last big one!”. So he decided to move up to a bit higher ground, while waiting for the USA-Americans that keep on building brand new houses on his former land, to get soaked in the next big one…
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…