It’s beginning to feel a lot like adventure. Just when Mexico was starting to feel mundane, a three hundred mile ride through a volcanic mountain range dropped us into a whole new tropical ambiance. We arrived in Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ka) yesterday evening amidst a thundering downpour. Thankfully Oscar was right on the money; the ride was incredible and the town is absolutely a must-see on our way south.
Al and I left Cuernavaca Friday morning around 8:00am with proper directions and a list of all the little towns we’d pass through on the way to Oaxaca. The earlier we leave, the less traffic, the less heat, and the more time for problems we have. The roads started off cool and clear as we headed back through Tepotzlan on the way south. After two weeks of Cuernavaca, it was amazing to finally have the wind in my face again hurling towards a new destination. Oscar’s advice had me very excited to hit the upcoming mountain roads; according to him, they were even better then Lagunas de Zempuala.
Just forty miles outside of Tepotzlan Alex came to a grinding halt with a flat rear tire. I wasn’t surprised, but I was very concerned. This tire took ten tries over two days last time and the installation hadn’t even lasted twenty-four hours. Now we have to go through it again in the sun at the onset of a huge run?
It wasn’t a perfect repair, but it’s about as close as we’ve gotten over the last 5,000 miles. Due to the heat of the day and the friction of the road, Al’s tire was easier to work with. The warmer rubber slipped off the rim like butter. We pulled the flat tube out, grabbed Alex’s spare, and had it back together in about twenty-five minutes. We filled the tire to the correct air pressure (33psi) and waited five minutes. On the second check, the air pressure gauge read 31psi… possibly (hopefully) just a reading error. Two minutes later it read 25psi… that’s a leak.
Not screwing around with Alex’s shitty tubes anymore, we ripped the second one out and put in my brand new spare. Some sweat and blood later we had the tire pumped up and holding air. Al put his bike back together and we hopped back in the saddle. Soon thereafter the two-lane road started winding up into an exotic mountain landscape. Coming over the first of several passes, I was stunned. Ahead were layers of volcano peaks fading into the distance all in different hues; dark green forests covering them almost to the top. The whole mountain range was densely packed with every summit coming definite point aimed straight upwards. Between them the other passes hung low and I could see the road snaking right through the center of everything; Oscar had delivered.
More amazing than the topography was the changing vegetation all around us. Cuernavaca is a very green city full of typical urban Mexican plant life, but this road was leading us deeper into that Tepotzlan-style jungle. There were multiple levels of the forest just like they teach in school. Dense ground growth at the bottom leading up to a thick overarching canopy on top. As we climbed higher, cactus starkly sprouted up among the green trees to create a wild play on the eyes. It was strange to see them there, but after a while they contrast nicely.
The Earth was also changing as we moved. The road is built right into the side of these mountains so the last couple thousand years of geology are visible where the hillside is cut away. For the first time on this trip the dirt turned copper red with white streaks layered every so often. Even more brilliant, I saw these changes take place over and over again as we climbed, summited, and then descended meandering through the hills. As for animals, I saw three iguanas. One was road kill, and the other two were due up as they sunbathed on the shoulder. For pea-brained lizards, they look eerily smart as they dart into the brush while I zoom by. The whole experience was absolutely breathtaking.
On top of all this, the layout of the entire ride was absolutely the best stretch we have encountered on these bikes. Constantly leaning into curves but never too tight. Always along a ridgeline or mountainside to admire the view. Before we left I adjusted my handlebars forward on Al’s advice. They were a lot closer to my gut before which made my arms do most of the steering on the hard turns. With them further away, my body now stays more upright while the bike leans and my arms simply stabilize the whole process. It’s quite a fun new ride.
As mentioned, we enjoyed three hundred miles of that before eventually dropping into Oaxaca. We already had a hostel in mind that Alex had his heart set on and we thought we knew how to get there. I had written down the address and Al had forgotten the name… we know what happens when Mexicans start giving directions. Alex and I drove around the same one mile diameter part of town for about two hours trying to find Hostel Ponchon. It started to drizzle… and then lightning… and then the hardest rain I’ve seen since Juneau, AK. Driving against rivers gushing down all the streets, I threw in the towel. I found a spot to stay and get dry while Al kept searching for his hostel. I rode through the rain in Toluca two weeks ago and I’ve been sick ever since. I was already soaked to the bone, but it felt good to get out of the deluge.
Thirty minutes later Alex returned even wetter but with a smile on his face. Hostel Ponchon was two blocks away. We walked in drenched and booked two spots in a six-bed dorm. After that, I pulled the boxes of my bike so I could get it through the front door, parked inside, dried off, and went out to eat. After that, I went to bed.
The past two weeks in Cuernavaca I didn’t have one good night’s sleep. Between the constant mosquito buzzing and the uncontrollable sweating, I tossed and turned the entire time I was there. Here at Hostel Ponchon I went out like a light around 11:00pm and didn’t wake up until 9:00am. I’ve never felt better. I got to know some fellow travelers at the included breakfast and we’ve been hanging out in different groups all day long.
Around 11:00am I got motivated to go do something with all my energy and decided that Alex and I needed to go to a water spring called Hierva de Agua that everyone had been talking about. We checked a map, packed our day trip luggage, and wrestled up two passengers for the ride. Thomas is a twenty-nine year old actor from England touring Mexico on holiday right now. Sisi is a world traveler born in China currently studying Spanish here in Oaxaca. They both were interested in the springs so we took them with.
Hierva de Agua is one city away, tucked into a high mountain. After 35km of highway, we started following the signs to the local attraction; they led well off the beaten path. The next half hour was up and down the most technical and rough off-road riding we have encountered so far. Washboard tire treads and loose gravel the whole way; not the ideal time to have a passenger, but we did fine taking it slow. We rode far up the mountain until finally we arrived in a little town that hosts Hierva de Agua.
For an entry price of less than $2, the place had a lot to offer. The springs bubble cold water right out the side of the mountain, drain down through a flat area (the size of a football field), and then over some cliffs. The water is concentrated with calcium so everywhere it has flown for the past several hundred years there are rippling calcium formations. In the middle of the flat area is a swimming hole that acts as an infinity pool draining further down the cliffs. A natural wonder, wherever a stream of water leads, there is a miniature canal of calcium built up around it. It looks as if someone laid out hundreds of little aqueducts leading down the mountainside but in reality the water flow built them over generations. For a better idea, Google Hierva de Agua and see for yourself. There are some dripping formations that look like they belong with the stalactites inside of caves.
Cleansed from the swim, we ate some tacos and geared up to ride back. Just as we mounted up, the afternoon rain picked up and we were again soaked with absolutely no waterproof protection. We got down the mountain and sped towards sunny Oaxaca. By the time we arrived back at the hostel, I was completely windswept and dry.
Since then Al and I have been hanging out with the other guys here. One in particular, Joe, has been a wealth of information. Joe is on a motorcycle heading in the opposite direction. He started in Africa, has been everywhere we’re going, and will finish this fall in Vancouver after hitting Prudhoe Bay, AK. Joe gave us all his used maps, all the good border crossings, and all the touring advice he’s learned during his journey. He’s been at this way longer and his experience shows. For a thirty year old architect, he knows the world well.
Today’s dinner was pretty unforgettable. Our group walked downtown a ways to a local ‘buffet’ style warehouse. The entrance starts with a hundred foot stretch of meat laid out on each side of the aisle from about ten different vendors. Further down, we bought some chilis and onions in a basket and brought them to the most desirable meat vendor we could find (like we had a clue). We bought a kilo of different meats and had them fry it up with the veggies while we sat down at a table. A waiter showed up and let us buy the other fixings a-la-carte: tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, and limes. Minutes later the meat and vegetables showed up on a platter and we all feasted for $5 each. Very authentic. My eyes burned from the searing flesh smoke in the poorly ventilated building, but it was some of the best food I’ve eaten here in Mexico.
Oaxaca is an incredible town. It dates back to colonial days so it is rich with culture and heritage. The centro hosts magnificent trees surrounding towering cathedrals and armories. There seems to be quite a lot of Spaniard influence as well; plenty of money from what I can tell. To any American wanting to visit Mexico, I would recommend Oaxaca over anything else I’ve seen. At the foot of that amazing mountain range, it’s the complete Mexican experience as I want it. Too bad, my visit here is short but sweet. Al and I are heading out tomorrow to continue south. We get sucked in everywhere; tomorrow’s destination will be no different.