Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Into the flatlands?

From Palenque its about 500 miles to the diving Mecca of Cozumel Island. So it's 10 days of cycling with a few days of sightseeing thrown in...should take me about 2 weeks then.

The 1st day I had planned to only cover about 40 miles to the town of El Zapata...I didn't even get that far.

By the time I had carried my bike and bags down to the hotel lobby I had already broken into a sweat! The road out of Palenque was across gently rolling countryside and after a few hours I hit the main road and turned right. The theme of the road continued past small woods and grass chewing cattle. After 4 hours on the road I had covered 31 miles (it's a lot easier when you're not climbing) and it was midday and hot. The town of El Zapata was 12kms down a side road and I was having a cold can of coke outside the petrol station wondering if I was in fact going to El Zapata or continuing along the main road instead. In the end I decided to carry along the main road and was just about to mount my bike when I saw that 80m away in the corner of the petrol station's large forecourt was a small hotel....fantastic!

For 250 pesos I got the largest hotel room in Mexico I've ever been in and it had A/C, what a bonus! The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging the hours away. When I went outside for the occasional fag by the time I had finished my arms were glistening with beads of sweat, It was like standing in front of a blast furnace. Me thinks that I am going to have to keep a close eye on my hydration levels. Just after 7pm I was hungry, as I was bimbling to the restaurant on the other side of the forecourt I looked skyward and watched in wonder as a huge electrical storm surged low across the horizon, its jet black clouds swirling in the strong winds. By the time dinner was served the storm was overhead and sounding angry.

In the morning I was up early and on the road just after 7am. The rolling countryside of yesterday was replaced by a flat waterlogged landscape and Romanesque roads. 10 hours and 76 miles later I came across the next hotel...I was knackered! A cold shower and a 2 hour lie down watching TV whilst the A/C cooled the room helped (but not that much). Tomorrow, due to today's high mileage I only have about 30 miles to travel to get to the large town of Escarcega, should take me about 6 hours :)

Well it turns out it only took me 4 hours. I'm having a day off the bike or more importantly a day out of the sun! Plus I need to once again go to the bike shop and get not 1 spoke but 2 replaced!!!!!

This never happened when I cycled across Europe but then I did have a German made bike!

After a day of rest I wasn't ready to get back on the road but I did never the less. The sunrise was spectacular and it was the highlight of the day! The road started out flat but that was soon to change. Usually when going along a flat road I bimble along at 12-15mph but today it was hard work to manage even 10mph. The reason was the strong headwind! It's the hurricane season right now and there was one out in the gulf of Mexico, this meant that were I was, whilst being 200 miles away, I was still being affected by it.

Then the dips happened! The rolling countryside whilst being nice to look at was a bitch to pedal across. The road stayed straight but the gradients were steep. Each “dip” was no more than a 1000m climb but in a strong headwind and in temperatures heading towards 40oc it was soul destroying. 4.5 hours after leaving the hotel I had only covered 30 miles and it was 11:30. I pulled into a shop and spent the next 30 minutes trying to cool down (somewhat unsuccessfully). I asked the lass behind the counter how far the nearest hotel was and when she answered part of me wished that I had never asked the question. Damn!...it was 30 miles away....oh boy!!!!!

Back on the bike it was hard work, forget about 10mph, I was working hard to manage 8mph and that was on the flat bits. An hour later I was in desperate need of shade, I stopped at a bus shelter and rested the bike against the long bench seat. As for myself, I laid down on the seat, my head resting on the front pannier....I had given up! (if only for an hour)

By 5pm I came to a small village called Conhuas near the Mayan ruins of Balamku. Stopping for a much needed drink I asked the question and got the answer. For 250 pesos I got a small thatched hut which had a bed and mosquito net in it (but no fan) whilst the nearby shower and toilet block had no water. Still, it was better than sleeping at the side of the road.

Following a somewhat smelly and sticky night I only had about 35 miles to the town of Xupjil, where I knew there were several hotels. The day was pretty much like the one before except the wind was stronger and I was weaker. The hours and kilometres passed slowly whilst the sweat trickled down from my head and slowly made its way to my shoes.

Around 1pm I stopped in the small village of Becan, I only had about 5 more miles to go!! After a couple of cold drinks I was back on the bike relieved in the knowledge that there wasn't much further to go. A couple of miles down the road and I was bimbling along quite happily when I approached a couple of young men at the side of the road. One of them was sitting down in the narrow shade of a large bush whilst the other one was just standing up. As I drew level with the upright man he swung a metal bar at my face! I'm guessing his plan was to knock me off my bike then unconscious before robbing me of all my possessions. Thankfully I have very quick reflexes so instead of the pipe smashing into my face it impacted heavily with my crash helmet, breaking into two pieces in the process. Immediately I found lots of energy and accelerated away with the guy giving chase. After 20m he gave up and badly threw the other half of the pipe at me. At this point I stopped, looked back and was giving serious consideration to getting off the bike, going back and beating the crap out of the guy. The two guys then choose that instant to disappear into the dense undergrowth and I, now with a cooler head, decided to carry on.

A short while later I arrived in the town of Xupjil, got myself a very nice hotel room (500 pesos pn) turned on the TV, watching the San Marino round of the MotoGP and relaxed as the A/C cooled me down.

The next day I woke up and turned on the TV.

The following day I was back on the road and it was “only 70 miles” to Chetumal. I was hoping there was a hotel about half way there.

The road was still being a bitch. The undulations were steep and the wind had gotten even stronger, It was hard work! After several hours I reached a small town which was about at the midpoint. Sadly there were no hotels...looks like it was going to be one hell of a day. ¾ of an hour later I saw a sign for a hotel and 15 minutes later I was at the turn off. Now it was decision time, I could either carry on peddling the 30 miles to Chetumal or I could cycle the 4.5km down the side road to the hotel. It wasn't just any hotel....it was a luxury resort hotel i.e. bloody expensive!!

30 minutes later I was checking into the Explorean Resort Hotel @ Kohunlich. It's an all inclusive hotel with isolated bungalows, infinity pool etc. etc. I had already steeled myself, so when the lass told me how much it was a night I didn't even flinch (however when I got to my bungalow I did whimper just a little bit...I mean 2700 pesos a night, that's a week's accommodation in one day). After a shower and a lie down I had a welcome introduction thingy.

Everyday they lay on an activity and today's was a twilight kayak paddle in a wetland lagoon. Even though I was drop dead tired I agreed to go. Following a plate of “whitey soul food” I whiled the 90 minutes away on my fantastically comfortable king size bed till it was time to go on the excursion.

We were on the water just as darkness approached and in the glow of the head torch there were loads of eyes looking back, mostly frogs but also one crocodile. After an hour or so it was completely dark and we all turned off the lights, laid back in the kayaks and checked out the milky way...WOW! By now I was absolutely famished and when we got back to the shore and out of the boats some 30 minutes later nothing had changed. Thankfully, on the shore of the lagoon a table had been set for dinner, illuminated by oil lamps and a log fire nearby.

The food was fantastic and the night's sleep was blissful.

In the morning I really didn't feel like leaving so I spent the day by the infinity pool on a day bed under a parasol. When it got to hot...I did mention about the pool already!!!

Before a late lunch I had an 90 minute hot stone massage.....today life is good :)

The next day I really had to leave, my wallet couldn't stand the strain any more. Turns out it was actually 40 miles to Chetumal and as there was no wind for the 1st two hours by 9am I was halfway there. After that I started to take it easy.....

I found a okay hotel with A/C, cable TV and wifi and settled down for a restful long weekend. After two days of pondering I decided that I couldn't be arsed to cycle the 200 odd miles to Cozumel (I was only going there for the diving) so instead on Monday morning I'll be pedalling the 10 miles to the Belizean border instead.

Friday, 6 August 2010

over the hills and far away

On Friday 6th of August I left Salina Cruz and the coast behind. The road was flat and straight but the wind was gusty and always in my face! It was only about 30 miles to the town of Juchitan and my legs, for some reason, were being very lazy so it took a while. I finally arrived at some point in the afternoon, got a hotel room and then chilled out.

The morning came and I got on the saddle and headed south out of town along the Pan American highway towards the small town of Zanatepec, 55 miles down the road. The conditions were the same as the day before except my legs weren't being lazy they were just really tired. As the day wore on, the heat and humidity increased. Also, yet again, another spoke went “ping” making it the 3rd one to go in the last 4 weeks...not so good especially now that I have a big fat mountain bike tyre on the rear wheel (for some reason my front wheel is fine)

With 5 miles to go I found myself in 6th gear on the flat whilst my body was getting ready to wave the white flag.......I arrived in the town and asked a local where the hotels were. It was only another 1000 metres along the highway. Halfway there the heavens opened and by the time I had covered the remaining 500 metres I was soaked to the skin.....but the hotel had A/C, which made me so happy.

15 miles down the road was the town of Tapanatepec and hopefully a bike mechanic. After a restful night I hoped my legs were feeling better.....erm....they weren't!! on the brightside out of the 3 bike shops in town, one of them was open on a Sunday. The hotel near the main square was good enough and the rest of the day was spent doing nothing at all. Tomorrow I have a mountain or two to climb and in this heat........

The following day I was on the road by 7am, cycling out of town under a clear blue sky. A mile down the road and it started to go uphill and I started to go down through the gears. Five kms and 45 minutes later I had reached the top of the hill and enjoyed the views and the small blast down the other side. From here on in, it was uphill for another 4.5 hours (and 18 miles). The road slowly twisted and turned its way up the side of the mountain and as the minutes passed the temperature increased. The 1st two hours were fine but after that the air I was breathing in was as hot as the air I was breathing out! The water I was carrying was now warm and there was no way to cool down until I got to the top of the climb. As the kilometres passed by the amount of time between stops diminished until it started to get ridiculous.

Finally I turned a corner and entered the small village of Riza de Oro, I was so happy! I rested and rehydrated for 45 minutes before getting back on the bike at midday ready to enjoy the downhill blast into the valley. Six hundred metres later the road stopped going downhill and started to go uphill once again....another 4 miles were spent going uphill before I finally crested the last rise and went downhill for real....it lasted for 2 miles....I was not happy!!!

The nearest hotel was in the town of Cintalapa which was still 30 miles away and the road whilst being quite straight was undulating with steep gradients. By 16:30 I had reached the town and the afternoon ride under a hot sun had really worn me out. It was one of the hardest days on the bike so far. I found a very nice hotel with A/C, cable TV, wifi and a balcony for smoking on. In the evening I went for a walk around the town, stopping for a few slices of pizza at one street stall followed by a couple of cheese burgers at another before finally finishing off a hot dog at one stall next to the hotel...yes I was quite hungry! 

In the morning I woke up and turned on the TV....

On Wednesday the 11th I was back on the road. The city of Tuxtla was 50 miles down the road and I had two climbs along the way. The day was overcast and hazy and compared to most days it was cool. The 1st climb of the day was about 5 miles long and due to the weather I found it easy and most enjoyable. The second climb of the day took place just after midday and my energy levels were lower so it took a bit longer. Halfway up the heavens opened and the rain came down. For the 1st time in Mexico I put on my rain jacket! By the time I got to the top I was starting to get cold and going downhill in a thunder storm with water gushing down the road didn't get me any warmer! However, it was the 1st time I had been cold since I left England and I was actually enjoying it. Two minutes later I stopped enjoying it and really wanted to get warm again! Shortly after that I stopped under a bridge for half an hour as the rain continued to pour down. The storm was directly over my head and the brutal sounds of the thunder and lightening affected the primordial part of my brain with cowardly results. The rain finally eased off and I still had about 10 miles to go but as it was mostly downhill on a freshly laid dual carriageway it was most enjoyable. Arriving at the outskirts of the city it started to rain once again and the 3 lane road was half covered by a 2 to 3 inch stream of muddy water. Unable to see the potholes was a worry, dodging the insane minibus taxis was another matter! I saw a sign for a hotel, whilst it was expensive (£22.50 per night) it was nearby to a Oxxo shop, a steakhouse,dominoes pizzas and a subway restaurant....sweet! 

When I got in the room I turned on the TV in time to catch the last 15 minutes of the 1st half of the England V Hungry match....good timing I thought! During half time I had a super hot shower and when the match was over I bimbled over to Subway's!

The next morning I had a nice lie in before going downhill for 12 miles to the small town of Chiapa de Corzo where you can catch a boat to ride up the 1000m deep Sumidero Canyon. It wasn't until I was crossing over the bridge at the entrance to the canyon that I remembered that I had been here before the last time I was in Mexico.

From this town it is 70kms or 45 miles to San Cristobal which is 1670m higher up in the sky. I'll mention here also that San Cristobal is in a valley, so the climb over the mountain is going to be a big one....looks like I may spend two nights here, just to give my legs a real good rest.

On Saturday 14th I left Chiapa behind and headed uphill across the valley to the side of the mountain. The early morning sun had yet to crest the ridge and so I started the climb in the cool shade. The road was easy and the climbing was enjoyable (but still hot and sweaty) and a few hours later I had reached the top and was now of the ridge of the mountain. Stopping to enjoy the views of the valley below me I turned on my gps to find that I had only climbed 600m. That meant I still had at least one kilometre still to go. The road went downhill for 500m and then once again went uphill. 

So far I had covered about 14 miles and so still had another 30 or so to go.

By now I was under the hot sun and the climbing whilst not being super steep was still enough of a gradient for me to pedal at a somewhat slow 4.5mph. By midday I was almost out of water and starting to run low on energy as well. Thankfully I came across a small village that was only a few hundred metres off the main road. Stopping there for a break I managed to clean the only shop out of all their bottled water (3 x ½ litre bottles!) while at the same time I was able to give the locals something to stare at...

Back on the road and the gradient was starting to take its toll on my legs one kilometre at a time. Soon I didn't have to worry about the sun any more as I had reached cloud base and was now cycling in the clouds. Two hours later I was having a “thank **** for that” rest outside a roadside shop the clouds released their water and it rained heavily. After 30 minutes the rain eased off to a light drizzle and so I got back on the bike, now wearing my rain jacket and continued uphill.

Around 4pm my legs had decided that 3.2mph was as much as they could possibly mange and I wasn't really in a position to argue. The rest stops became more frequent and somewhat longer. Each time I got back on the bike it became harder to carry on but as I was in the middle of nowhere I didn't have much of a choice. About an hour later I entered the large village of Navenchauc and my legs were begging me to find a hotel...sadly there was none. Chatting to a local shop keeper he informed me that it was only 20 kms to San Cristobal, which I already knew but that there was only 3kms more uphill action till the road went downhill all the way into San Cristobal. Damn, that lifted my distraught and disheartened spirits.

Rehydrated and smiling I slowly climbed the 3kms and when I saw the microwave relay towers I was so happy (they are always at the highest point of the road). Once I passed them the road turned a corner and went downhill and at the very next corner I stopped at the side of the road, sat down and had a fag!

It was now 6pm and I had been on the road for 11 hours and had cycled 35 miles all of them uphill. My gps told me that I was 2450m above sea level (new personal record) and as I was at least 6m lower than the “summit” it meant that I had climbed 2000m in one day. Not bad for a fat, beer swilling, chain smoking lazy bloke!

Back on the bike, I was smiling as the road flowed smoothly from one bend to another downhill through the clouds and into the warm sunshine of an early evening. Two miles later I entered a small town and as I came around a bend in the road the smile left my face...the road started to go uphill!!! 


After 500m my legs were waving the white flag and so I got off the bike and slowly walked the 2 miles up the hill, with my head bowed as I didn't have the energy to look up any more. When I finally reached the top it was 7pm and I was almost at the point of complete exhaustion.

Mind you the 5 mile descent to the city limits of San Cristobal was fantastic!!!!!

Arriving at the city limits I stopped outside an Oxxo shop, sat down with a can of coke in one hand a marlboro in the other and grinned and chuckled like a loon. (spending 12.5 hours on the road covering 45 miles of which 38 were uphill will do that to the sanest of men!)

By 20:30 I was showered, dressed and walking slowly to get something to eat and drink. By 10pm I was in bed....fast asleep.

The next day was a Sunday, so I had a long lie in but by 10:30 I was walking out of the hotel door in search of coffee. It was during my second cup of the black stuff that I realised what the date was. Turns out yesterday was the one year anniversary of my accident...what a way to "celebrate it"!

This is the 2nd time that I've been in this town, the 1st was back in 2004 and nothing much has changed.. Well there are more pretentious restaurants and lounge bars...so much for progress! My original plan was to stay here for a few weeks and learn some Spanish, however after looking at a calendar I found that I only have about 8 weeks left on my 180 day visa. So it looks like I'll be learning Spanish in Guatamala instead.

I ended up staying here for 6 nights which gave my legs 5 days of rest. There are many day trips you can make from here, I made zero! I did walk around the market, even buying myself a new wallet in the process. On my penultimate night I managed to find the local “Irish bar”, it had 2 X 1 drink offers and unlike every other bar in town you could smoke at the bar...damn it!! However all good things must come to an end and on Friday 9th I got back on the saddle.

The next place I was heading for was Palenque which was about 130 – 140 miles away and 2000m lower down. Sixty miles from San Cristobal is the town of Ocosingo, near the Mayan ruins of Tonina and so that was were I was heading.

Leaving San Cristobal there was a long slow climb out of the valley before turning left onto the Palenque road and continuing uphill. After another hour of slowly going uphill the road made a gentle descent into a valley. Four miles later the road once again went uphill. For the next several hours I transversed one valley after another. Sometimes the valley was 2 or 3 miles wide whilst other times it could be less than 500m wide.

What I'm basically trying to say is that I spent most of the day going uphill!!!!

Around 3pm I emerged from a short gorge (going uphill of course), turned the corner and saw that hundreds of metres below me was a wide valley with the town of Ocosingo at the bottom. I was, to say the least, relieved. Stopping at a shop for a drink I sat outside and admired the views. It was only 10 miles to go and I was knackered, it looked like it would be downhill all the way. Getting back on the bike I got up to speed and then free wheeled. About 1.5 miles later the road started going in the wrong direction....uphill!!!!! After a tiring 20 minute climb, proper order was restored and I was free wheeling once again. Several corners later I was once again going uphill. This was getting beyond a joke! A weary 40 minutes later and I was going downhill one more time all the way into the town.

By now it was 16:30 and the 1st hotel I came across (on the outskirts of town) was the one for me! The hotel was quiet and had cable TV, it only cost 130 pesos a night.

In the evening I had meat in the restaurant next door, grabbed a few cans of beer and watched TV in my room whilst listening to the thunderstorm. Come the morning it was still raining but only a light drizzle.

By 9am I had travelled the 10 miles or so to the ruins of Tonina by minibus. I had two cups of coffee in the car park waiting for the rain to stop before giving up and getting wet. The ruins consist of several secondary structures next to a very large 7 tiered pyramid structure, clustered with various temples. The steps up were wet and narrow but climbing down was more difficult (I still don't fully trust my ankle). About 3 hours of wandering and picture taking I headed back to Ocosingo. I checked out the centre of town and was glad I wasn't staying there. I then went into a internet cafĂ© to check out the road to Palenque using the “terrain feature” on google maps. I came to the conclusion that tomorrow is going to be one hell of a day!

The following day....(and it was 80 miles to Palenque)

It was about 1000m to the main road and after 500m I was walking up a 25%gradient...I only just made it :) After a quick blast downhill to the valley floor I was cycling along the flat at about2/3rd's of my normal speed, things were not looking good. One mile later down the road the 1st climb started. Two hours later I was at the top and I'll admit that some of the climb was spent pushing the bike. After having a rest and a drink outside a shop, it was downhill but not for too long.

Then it was once again uphill, then downhill, then uphill, then downhill, then uphill...I think by now you're getting the general idea. Finally after 4.5 hours and 20 miles the road went down hill for about 10 miles....it was glorious.

So, five hours on the road with 30 of the 80 miles covered....luckily for me about 12 miles away was the tourist trap of Aqua Azul, along a stretch of river are numerous cascading waterfalls but more more importantly a bed!

After a rest at the bottom of the hill it was time again to endure the agony of the climb. I was finding it really hard going, my legs refused to pedal any gear higher than 1st and I was heading uphill at an abysmal 3mph, apart from when my legs decided to not want to pedal at all, forcing me to walk! Eventually, soaked to the skin in sweat, absolutely knackered I reached the top of the mountain. Going down the other side intoxicated by the bliss of the “free wheel” I passed a road sign that meant I only had 5 miles to Aqua Azul...happy days!

Sadly a few hundred metres later I went over a bridge that straddled the river and winced as I saw the road disappear uphill. Six hundred metres later I was walking and continued to do so for the following 3 miles under the hot Mexican afternoon sun. reaching the top the road levelled out and so I was able to pedal, abet slowly.

Half an hour later I came to the Aqua Azul turn off. After a 30 minute rehydration stop I headed along the side road. Three miles later I was in Aqua Azul and man was I worried!!!! The three mile road to get here was tight, twisty and very steeply downhill, there was no way I would be able to cycle back up it!

1st things 1st....a bed was needed and I found one about 500m from the river's edge. I was sitting outside the hotel, after checking in, having a fag wondering on the best way to cool down. It was then that it started to rain...looks like I found the best way to cool down!

I had a ice cold shower (which was wonderful) and a long lie down but by 5pm I was hungry and so I bimbled to the restaurants that line the river.. following a large meal and a couple of beers I found that:
(a) I didn't want another beer (shocking!!!!)
(b) I was very tired 

Back in my room I was watching a film, lying on my stomach with my head resting on the pillows when I curled my right leg towards my buttock. I was rewarded with excruciating pain as the tendon in my thigh spasmed. The same thing happened with my left leg, then the arch of my right foot got cramp, painfully! I've think I've broken my lower body...and don't even get me started on the weeping sore on my arse caused by sitting on a sweat soaked saddle all day (if you would like a picture, email me and I'll send you a picture!) Still it could be worse...but right now I'm bot sure quite how?

The next day I woke up but decided against getting out of bed fore a few hours. However by 10:30 my desire for coffee and cigarettes overcame my lethargy and I walked the 500m to the restaurants, slowly. After a leisurely breakfast I walked upstream along a stepped path admiring the numerous waterfalls. Then it was back to the restaurants for lunch, afternoon snacks and dinner. It was during the afternoon that I came up with a “cunning plan” for tomorrow!

In the morning I was woken up before my alarm by the dawn chorus, which wasn't made by birds singing but by dogs barking and howling...mmm. On the bike I made my way up the uncyclable hill but after 100m I stopped and got off. 15 minutes later I was at the top helping the taxi driver get my bike out of the boot! It was the best 50 pesos (or £2.50) i've ever spent, well apart from those pack of condoms I brought back in the 80's the day I lost my virginity...but that's another story!

After a second class breakfast at the shop (that's a coke and a fag by the way) I started to pedal around the corner....the road was going downhill!! The views across the valley were amazing! The sun was shining and the lower half of the valley was shrouded in clouds. As I made my way downhill I entered the clouds and the mist was cooling and wonderful. After 8 miles the road levelled out and I was bimbling along the flat lands …...within the hour I was a 1/3 of the way to Palenque! 

A few hours later I came to what I thought could be the last climb. As I had loads of time before it got dark or started to rain I took it easy and by that I mean I mostly walked up the hill because I didn't have the energy to pedal. Eventually I reached the top, there was no fanfare! On the descent down the hill I could sneak peeks of what lay ahead, the Yucatan peninsula....flat as a table cloth!

Towards the bottom of the mountain I came across a shop at a road junction....30 minutes and 1.5 litres of water later I felt refreshed. Now it was only 5 miles to the centre of town....downhill! Back on the saddle the road meandered for several hundred metres before turning a corner and straighten out. Ahead of me the road went uphill...what!!! It was only a for a few hundred metres but as far as I was concerned it was a mountain. This was it....my last climb in Mexico and damn it I was going to make it to the top in one go! I did but it left my knackered.....

Arriving in the centre of town I found a hotel that had what I needed....A/C and cable TV!

Following a ice cold shower (there was plenty of hot water but I didn't want it) I flopped on the bed, turned on the TV and breathed out slowly....I was tired!

When it got dark I managed to drag myself out of the hotel and went for a bimble. The “high street” was less than a 100m away and the place looked nicer than I remembered. I found a restaurant with sport on the TV, looked at the menu and ordered the largest steak they had...with an extra large portion of chips! 12 minutes and 33 seconds after the food arrived it was all gone. Man was I hungry!!!

The next morning I checked out my arse and tested the strength in my road weary legs and decided that a whole week off the bike was definitely in order.

The only thing to “do” here is to visit the nearby Mayan ruins, which I did for the second time. Apart from that....I did mention that my room had A/C and cable TV!!!!