San Cristobal de las Casas proved to be everything and so much more than I had anticipated, launching it easily into one of my top 3 favorite places in Mexico thus far.  The energy and vibe of the city and its people, including the surrounding mountains and villages, did much to warm my heart, excite and inspire me over the week we decided to stay.

Though originally the state capital, the city has remained on the quainter side for many years.  The indigenous presence is still large.  During the colonization, the take over of the land left the people in slavery, sickened with diseases and unable to recuperate their incredible losses.   Over the course of history, many groups have fought for, and gained, the rights of the indigenous people back.  The most well-known, and still active, is that of the Zapatistas, an autonomous self governed group of Mexicans (both indigenous and non) who focus on land reform for the people, among other things.  Chiapas overall is well established with  Zapatista presence and as San Cristobal is the heart of the state, the leftist political energy can be felt all around.

We started with a settling into El Hostalito, where we were offered a night of free sleeping thanks to the incredible Joaquin and his Warmshower ways.  Originally from Spain, Joaquin did his own bike tour across the US and couldn’t get enough, so he continued down into Mexico and settled in San Cristobal.  He’s a fixed gear fanatic and has recently started a bike shop along with the hostal.  Along with his friend and business partner (and incredibly creative pants maker) Marie, they run a place that easily felt like home after only a few hours.  We unloaded our bags and explored the city and its awesome market of fresh produce, picking up supplies for our planned dinner feast.

The days flew by and were both super fun and very productive.  Marie let me use her sewing machine to remake a better fitting bug net for my hammock, getting it more ready for the approaching jungle country.  We shifted our stay over to our Turkish friend Cihan’s house, and together him and I visited the Traditional Mayan Medicine Museum and  the Amber Museum, while taking a massive walk around the streets of San Cristobal.  Kurt and I also got in some extra rides on unloaded bikes outside the city, which is always a huge highlight in a new place for us.

We’ve done quite a bit of research and route planning, and with our brains and imaginations spilling over with local advice and recommendations, we are both antsy and excited to get this next bit of travel under way.  I know for sure this is not the last time I will visit the city of San Cristobal.

 

The streets of San Cristobal, so colorful and festive...

One of the black fuzzy skirts so many of the ladies rock quite fabulously...

outside the bustling market we enjoyed scouring so much for fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese, etc. ...

The market and individual produce stands throughout the city all have their products arranged in a careful and aesthetically pleasing manner, which adds to the whole experience...

 

Inside Pura Bici...

Outside Pura Bici, the usual question/answer session...

Many of the soft drinks in Mexico are still sold in these continuously recycled thick glass bottles...

These little stoves are a must have for the cold winters spent in a concrete room. Recycled out of different sized tins, they serve as a portable heater and run off charcoal or wood...

Sunday afternoon strolling...

A work in progress...

The Cathedral, which has been restored many times over the years due to destructive earthquakes...

The Palacio Municipal, one of the buildings overtaken by the Zapatistas during their 1994 defiance of the signing of the NAFTA agreement...

As it has been brought to my attention that people really like seeing pictures of Kurt and I doing things together, here is one of us helping prepare a big feast on the day of Thanks. Kurt ended up not chopping off of my hand and the beets turned out... (Photo: Ginger Roberts)

...just delicious...

The view from the steps of Cerro de Guadalupe...

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Oaxaca…

November 17, 2010

All together now…wah-haa-kah.  Wah-haa-kah.  Oaxaca!  Very good…

To ensure we made it to Oaxaca for the Dia de Muertos celebration, we admittedly hopped on the autopista and cruised straight for the city.  I must say, as much as we seek out the back road dirt experience for most of our riding, our times on the autopistas (read: Mexico freeway) has been agreeably better than anticipated.  Reason being, we find the autopistas relatively abandoned.  Most drivers seemingly stick to the nearby libre, as it offers more exit options and is toll free .  These autopistas have been constructed by blasting through whatever is in its way to get to where it plans, so indeed, the is the most direct.  The libre roads, however, will follow the curve of the land and wind up, over, in, down and around to get you to your destination.  Comparatively, with the lack of traffic and the wide allowance of a shoulder, the riding has not been all that torturous.  The big trucks certainly are mindful and move over for us, rarely causing “life flashing before our eyes” scenarios.

The ride into Oaxaca was no different.  Having made it a day sooner than we anticipated, we contemplated camping outside the city for the evening and heading in first thing in the morning.  But as these things go, with the movement of traffic, the draw of the bustling surroundings and the allure of a new place we had heard and read so much about, we were soon pulled right down into the middle and heading for el centro historico.

Immediately we were swept up in the festivities.  The Zocalo was completely alive.  Huge sand art scenes, depicting Day of the Dead specific art, were splayed out all over the pathways, some still in progress of being created.  Aside from the various booths selling food, art and the local indigenous jewelry and fashions, there was a whole new array of folks selling candy skulls and skeleton chocolates, sketches of the dead dancing about, candles, offerings and the likes.

We hung around the center for a bit, taking it all in.  As to be expected, along with the holiday came an influx of tourism and other gringos.  Enter Bob.  On our way to go find some food we were approached by a very boisterous Texan who had ridden his motorcycle down for the week.  His riding buddies had taken off for a few days to go to a rally down south, but instead of heading with them, Bob just wanted to “put the bike away and not touch it for a week.”  Over…one of the best dinners we’ve had in Mexico, Bob’s very kind treat…I made a joke that his staying in Oaxaca was also due to the fact he was also a sucker for folk art and needed some serious time to take it all in.  All jokes aside, this was actually true and one of the main reasons Bob had come down was to explore his interest in cochineal, a red dye made from tiny insects that live on the prickly pear cacti in the area.  After the Spanish invaded it was the export of this dye that essentially put Oaxaca on the map.  Without this, there would never been such historical events as “the redcoats are coming, the red coats are coming!”  We spent the evening and following morning in Bob’s company, swapping all sorts of stories and information.

After our initial night of Oaxacan fun, we moved out of the car park we were kindly allowed to camp in thanks to Bob and over to Jenny’s house situated a little ways from the city sprawl.  After having such a great experience with Fausto in Morelia through Warmshowers, we decided to give Couchsurfer a try.  Jenny was fantastic to let us stay in her backyard for the better part of the week as we explored the city and waited patiently for some mail to arrive carrying some essential bike parts.  It was here that we also got some good bike maintenance in and I learned how to take apart and regrease my hub.

It was in Oaxaca during these days that we also met the first other cycle tourists we have seen since entering Mexico (well, we met one other verrrrry briefly around Lake Chapala, from Argentina, heading in the opposite direction, but I‘m not really counting that).  Wolf and Javier were heading to their buddy’s wedding in Antigua, Guatemala and were taking the long way to get there.  Over the next few days we ran into them several times and made plans to ride over to the coast together.  With our packages nowhere in sight, the four of us headed towards the coastal range on a Friday afternoon.

The Oaxacan scene is filled with tons of traditional, and not-so-traditional, art. All of it caught our attention...

The sand sculptors hard at work...

...creating masterpieces such as these. The Zocalo walkways were filled with colorful depictions of the Dia de Muertos holiday...

Per usual, colonial architecture on a crisp, clear day. I think when they paint these buildings they paint them to compliment that kind of sky...

Black mole. In Mexico, there are seven different kinds of mole, which is a sauce made from fruits, nuts and sometimes chocolate. As you can see, mole is not a sauce to go with a dish as much as it is the actual dish. We are working our way to trying all seven kinds. So far the yellow is my favorite...

Kurt and Bob going over all the places you can stash things on a BMW motorcycle...

Jimminy crickets! A common snack found around these parts...

I can't get enough of these markets. Kilo de arbol? Media kilo?...

Oaxaca is known its chocolate and cheese. Here the chocolate is mixed with sugar before being pressed and sold...

The warmth of Morelia…

November 3, 2010

As we zipped down out of the hills and descended into the valley that held Morelia and all of its outskirts, Kurt and I both looked at each other and smiled and said, “finally!”  We had had our Morelia plans for a while now and it felt great to actually reach the city that until then had merely been a big, yellow highlighted and bold typeface word on our map.  Located in the state of Michoacan, Morelia is a bustling colonial city, having earned its Unesco World Heritage site status in 1991.

We ended up staying for the better part of 6 days, the longest place in Mexico we had stayed thus far.  Recently we had signed up for Warmshowers.org, an online organization which helps put cycle tourist in touch with hospitable people all over the world.  Our first experience with it led us to Fausto’s rooftop terrace in Morelia and the experience was just the best.  We spent numerous days exploring the city and hanging out with Fausto and his friends, as we could just stash our stuff and take off on unloaded bikes.  There was even an extra road bike hanging around so Kurt could partake in some of Morelia’s weekly group rides.

Fausto had been kind enough to give us his address long before we arrived so we could work on having some things shipped to Morelia.  I am happy to report that one such package came from our good friend Viva who, after reading the post about our pilfered bottle of GSE, promptly got on it to send another one along with some other natural remedies.  Receiving mail on the road and the handwritten letters that come along with them are such a special treat.  We can’t thank you enough Viva!

There were many memorable highlights of our stay in Morelia, but the one I speak of the most is my trip to the open air Sunday market.  I literally got lost winding through the streets clamored with everything you can imagine.  Piles of shoes, ladies selling turtles and ferrets, clothes hanging from everywhere, electronic bits lumped on blankets, books, school supplies, handbags, men maneuvering wheel barrels overflowing with fresh honey.  I have visited other markets similar in Mexico and a few during my travels in Southeast Asia, but this one in Morelia had me the most in awe.  It felt so alive and vibrant.  And, having left my bike with Fausto at his shop,  I truly could get lost in the crowd, which really doesn’t get to happen too often in Mexico for several reasons.

Overall, Morelia was a great place to spend the better part of a week and we left knowing Fausto is a friend we will have for a very long time.

We miscommunicated on our initial meeting place with Fausto so our very first night in Morelia was spent in this luxurious suite for a mere $7 US...

Fausto Sr. and Fausto Jr. at their refaccionario shop downtown. This is place you go if your blender blades are no longer blending properly, or maybe, say, you need some little plastic bits to splint your tent poles with...

It's hard work I am sure, but someone has to majestically pour water into this fountain all day...

The boys as they head out for a road ride. Sadly, there was no lightweight bike small enough for me. And yes, Kurt is wearing sandals with socks...

Everyone's favorite revolutionary...

Looking down the length of Avenue Francisco Madero Oriente, Morelia's main street. A big college town, the presence of students and intellectual sorts can be easily felt, especially up and down this busy corridor. There is also the ever-present fauxhawk to remind you as well...

At the encouragement of Fausto's great roommate Angelica, we made a point to really visit all of the beautiful/historical spots in the city. Their architecture is impressive and many of their insides are decorated lavishly with murals highlighting much of Mexico's history. The main Cathedral in town took over a century to build and houses a working organ with 4600 pipes. This photo is of a building I forget the name of...

Angelica also took the time to drive us out to nearby Patzcuaro, agreeably one of the most beautiful Mexican towns we had been in thus far. Here all of the adobe buildings are painted in a similar cream and red fashion and the layout of the town around its many plazas gives off a very western feel. Patzcuaro is exploding with galleries, showing off some very impressive folk art and pottery...

...which we soaked up as we strolled along through the cobblestone streets. I can't write about Patzcuaro without mentioning its incredible natural ice cream which it is also famous for. They offer many traditional and recognizable flavors, including pasta, corn, tequila, and peanut butter, to name a few...

When religion turns into some beautiful art...

This was my favorite wall...

Enjoying some adult beverages on Fausto's rooftop, the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon...

Our buddy Chuckles, who took pleasure in snuggling into our tent each night...

San Miguel de Allende…

October 14, 2010

As the saying goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  San Miguel is a nice town, quite colonial and pretty to look at.  Aside from that, it is quite touristy and has an overwhelming x-patriot presence, making it indeed feel like the Mexican Disneyland.  I will say however that we hung out for the Friday night light show they cast on the church with lasers and it was really quite impressive.  Running for about 15 minutes, the show takes you step by step, in its laser light fashion, through the course of Mexico history.  At the time, the show had been occurring only through the month of September during the bicentennial celebration time, but we heard the shopkeepers are trying to make it a permanent fixture in San Miguel every Friday night.  Aside from the lasers, I was very happy to leave and continue our heading east toward Lake Chapala.

 

Mexican Disneyland indeed...

Festive as always...

As the sun goes down, the celebrations begin...

...and soon there are street performances everywhere...

Another one of my favorite translations...

The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, which mason Zeferino Gutierrez constructed based of a postcard of a Belgian church...

The show begins promptly at 9:15. Seen here are the colors and patterns representing Mexican indigenous crafts...

...and later on an image of Miguel Allende himself...

Unfortunately what I couldn't seem to get past was how much of San Miguel was like this...

 

San Luis Potosi…

September 25, 2010

San Luis Potosi had come up time and time again in conversation, and as it was on our way to the Biosphera, we decided to pay it a visit.  We were pleasantly surprised to find a pretty big sized lake not mentioned on our map about 20 kilometers outside the city and it didn’t take much for us to call it a day.  We set up camp for the evening, taking time to fish in a little drizzle and have a very sav-ory meal of spaghetti and red sauce, quite a rarity in Mexico.  We’d been saving this box of sauce for a while.  The ride into San Luis Potosi went from unnerving, as we had to ride on a freeway to get in, to excitingly comical, once we found there was a bike path, bound by little concrete walls, leading right down the center of the highway.  In it we took comfort, protected slightly from the colossal trucks passing on each side, and we cruised the 11 kilometers effortlessly toward the downtown.

I have to say that it was in this city that we encountered the most genuinely friendly people.  Everyone who stopped to ask us the usual (where are you from, where are you going) really wanted to know and took sometime listening to us butcher Spanish, asking us if we needed any place to stay, anything to drink or any local information.  One very helpful local, AG, even ran off and grabbed us a map of the area, which proved to be quite valuable over the course of the next week.

We had no intention of staying overnight in the city and we sat scratching our heads, staring bleary eyed at the computer screen in a café as it got later and later.  We were both growing a bit tired of the colonial cityscapes. As beautiful and breathtaking as they can be, they can get pretty redundant after while.  It was time for us to put some distance between us and what we felt like it was starting to become Spanish Colonial Tour 2010.

“What do we want to do next?”

One of the beauties of bike touring.  At any given moment, we can decide which way we want to go or what we want to do right and then.  We had heard about the Sierra Gorda range and planned to head there, but we had also just been given an onslaught of new information and names of places that were personally recommended as area favorites.  As we started to type in some of the names, we were bombarded with picture after picture of beautiful scenery.  Brilliantly colored waterfalls, lush cloud forests and mystical sculptures set amongst jungle green backdrops where just a few of the things we saw.

“Let’s go there!”

It was as easy as that.  We where adding a couple 100 kilometers to our trip and taking quite the zig zag way to head south, but it was a new plan that we would thank ourselves for over and over throughout the next week and a half.

An afternoon spent relaxing in a drizzle...

Trying to figure out how to get onto the highway...

...sometimes ends with just pushing the bikes up the embankment and hurtling them over the guard rail...

...to face the daily travels of beasts like this...

To our delight, we got to ride in the middle of the highway, protected slightly on either side...

A bike shop we passed along the way which graciously let us put our wheels on their stand and get a little bike maintenance done...

Ooogling in progress. This was one of the nicest, most organized shops we had seen in Mexico thus far...

Enthusiastic school kids in San Luis Potosi. Most schools here require uniforms...

What goes on when school gets out...

I've mentioned the plazas we find in each town quite frequently before. Well, San Luis Potosi had plazas of many different kinds...

The "real" plaza of San Luis Potosi, Jardin Hidalgo...

Kurt perusing the pastry aisles, as usual...

They smile every time we come in the door.

Yum...

...yum...

...yum...

Bird’s eye views…

September 12, 2010

Looking towards the Cathedral en la noche...

As we hiked up the hillside heading for La Bufa, we came across many a cave and old mine shaft. This is how the bats see la cuidad...

So much packed in there...

The sprawl starts to dissipate a bit as it spreads from the center, but only so much...

To help you absorb it all from above, Zacatecas has the Telerifico. This aerial cable car will take you across the top of the city up to the Cero do la Bufa to peer down at all those colorful rooftops...

After another great morning of dirty dirt riding and dodging kind offers for us to “stay and eat and rest” in the small town of El Maguey, we arrived into the hustle and bustle of the Zacatecas downtown in the late afternoon.  The city is built up on high ground, spreading out beautifully over the hilltops and spilling into the valley situated between.  The ride in was a slap in the face of big city highways and traffic, but we maneuvered just fine.  The Spanish influence and colonization is overwhelmingly present and could be felt immediately (and literally) as we bounced down the cobblestone streets heading for el centro.  Our game plan was to take the afternoon to explore the city, scout out some of the bigger attractions and head out just as it was getting dark to camp outside the city limits.  In our experience, we’ve found that most empty lots, whether abandoned or the sites of things being constructed, are excellent camp spaces…as long as you don’t mind some lights and the noise of careening highway traffic fairly nearby.  You can’t beat the price, the location is usually pretty close to where you want to be in the morning and most times they have a friendly night watchman who is happy to have you.

A brief overview of this great, grand and beautiful city…. Zacatecas is the eye-catching result of some serious amount of silver nearby and the Spaniard greed to extract it all.  Filled with cathedrals, plazas and museums, you can’t help but feel you are somewhere in Europe.  The indigenous folk of Zacatecas, refered to as Zacatecos, mined different mineral deposits for years prior to the Spanish invasion in 1548.  After that, they were enslaved for centuries as the Spaniards shipped load after load of silver off to Mexico city, hence building the wealth allowing for all of those fancy cathedrals and plazas.  The flow of silver slowed in the 19th century due to the political instability and revolutionary types behind them.  Enter Pancho Villa.  In 1914, along with Felipe Angeles, Villa defeated 12,000 soldiers loyal to the then president Victoriano Huerta, thus reclaiming Zacatecas, which was crucial as it was the gateway to Mexico City.  As political stability returned, though it was many more years for this to be, the silver mines did start up again and there is still one active one just outside the city.

Knowing we were going to stay in the city for a day or two, I arranged for some packages to be shipped to a hostel there.  The hostel, Villa Colonial, is smack dab in the middle of the city and after seeing the amazing rooftop view and meeting the friendly owner Ernesto, we decided to stash the bikes here and explore the city on foot, a bit of a luxury in a way.  I am proud to say I even spent a night salsa dancing my flip-flops right off my feet and challenging Ernesto, his brother and their friends to game after game of fuseball, where I managed to stay in the plus (and the Margaritas) for the remainder of the night.   The night ended with them taking me to the best taco stall in all of the city, very reminiscent to getting pizza in NY before heading back across the bridge.

September is prime festival time (Feria de Zacatecas), and this year Zacatecas was celebrating it’s bicentennial by doing things up in a grand way.  Everywhere we looked there were organized, as well as impromptu, performances, parades, fairs and celebrations.  For the next three days we settled comfortably into the city enjoying everything it had to offer.

Approaching the city on a hill...

Concrete jungle here we come...

Entering the city, trying to make it as quick and painless as possible. We got a lot of honks. I'm going to think they were all great big welcomes...

Museum...

One of the many streets...

Mexican mountains = silver = spanish invasion = elaborate churches and plazas everywhere. This is the Cathedral. Built between 1729 and 1752, the detailed carvings have been interpreted as a giant symbol of the tabernacle...

Striking resemblance...

Celebrating to the beat...

...and honking...

...and honking...

...and honking. We learned each day of the three week festival is designated to a different essential operation, and they celebrate individually by getting together (today was Friday and the day for taxi drivers) and driving in a caravan from La Bufa to the fair grounds, swerving, honking and throwing candy out the windows...

Mustachios for sale...

A little self-portrait. In front of me was the Plazuela Francisco Goitia, which is used as an amphitheater for street performances...

It was great fun to explore all of the shops nestled into the tiny streets snaking everywhere. They were intimately adorned with a whole assortment of things we really have no use for at this time...

One of the many picturesque and worn streets...

Kurt getting off his shift from the mine...

A long way down...

Viva La Revolution!...

Eat...

...and eat...

...and eat...

...and eat...

Sombrerete and beyond…

September 5, 2010

A view of the city of Sombrerete. This was the biggest city we had been in in Mexico thus far. It was very exciting for us and made us even more anxious for Zacatecas...

Riding around on the architectural wealth of Sombrerete (Photo: Kurt)...

I love maps. Here is the one we get to look at all day...

For cows...and cyclists?...

...and again. I would say we maneuvered over about 10 of these that day...

Geode love...

Some long days of riding must end with a dinner of cookies and beer...

We happen to pass through the town of Santa Barbara just as their anniversary festivities were at a peak. I got to witness my first rodeo...

...and as grand as it was, I had to look away most of the time. Seriously scared and confused cows are too much for me...

Yvette, a rodeo beauty...

Fans hoping for some action...

Determined to make it to Zacatecas this day, we rose before the sun. Kurt, with an early cup of coffee already in his system, took pleasure in flipping the eggs as high as he could as the dawn broke around us...

One positive thing about finding your camp spot in the darkness is that you get to enjoy a nice surprise of lit scenery in the morning, as we did here with this lake...

Just another perfect dirt road, no big deal...

The seemingly abandoned town of Nueva Australia...

Door jam love just outside of Zacatecas ...