Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Espinazo del Diablo

"Shrimp, shrimp, shrimp, shrimp" so began my mantra after 20 km of being beaten in the face by some seriously nasty headwind on our way into the city of Durango. I couldn't wait to get to Mazatlan and the beach.

Durango was a pleasant surprise and it wasn't for the chocolate cake and candied pecans I found either. I swear we were the only tourists in town and yet, with it's pedestrian streets and beautifully lit colonial buildings, Durango shone as if it had just been polished up for some international touristic event. Only there was no international event. Durango is just a lively and prosperous place. If it weren't for the fact that this capital actually sees snow in the winter I'd say that I'm shocked the place isn't full of gringo retirees. While we were excited to finally be turning onto the Ruta 40 which leads to the Espinazo del Diablo, we were also sad to be leaving this gem of a place.

Onward and upward we went only to be passed by at least a hundred local riders out for a Sunday ride. The folks were unusually accessible and curious for Mexican road riders, we exchanged stories and got the details about the ride that lay ahead. Most of them knew it intimately from an annual event arranged by Vagabundos Durango that follows this route from Durango to Mazatlan in two days and attracts over 500 riders. Were were doing it in three and it was still plenty tough.

The second day we paralleled the new toll road for a good distance and then made it to the the heart of the reason we were there "the espinazo!". To say this road ribbons, undulates, or meanders is an understatement...sinuous curves- oh yes it is all of those things. You reach a point where you feel you should must begin your descent to the sea, but the road drops twists and then regains all of the altitude you just lost. It does this countless times for more than 40 kilometres. Granted you do gradually do lose some altitude, but the only thing that makes this loss feel rewarding is the sea of disappearing blue mountain ridges that wash out to the left of you as you make you way down the road. It takes a long time before the metres disappear easily. A man directing traffic around a bit of road constuction eggs us on with accolades as to our cycling prowess and how tough these hills are. Basil moans of how this might be the toughest downhill ever.

And then all of a sudden we are at the sea and eating shrimp on the beach in Mazatlan.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Plunder of Zacatecas

The canyon lands melt away behind us as the landscape yawns into a wide open high plateau. Fluffy fat cows graze all around us and signs for lienzo charro appear painted on the walls of most towns we pass through. I delight in seeing young men in big hats practicing their rope work while riding horseback on the the grassy banks between the cattle fences and the side of the road. It is obviously mating season for certain insects as the road itself is full of the carnage of millions of giant smashed grasshoppers. On top of almost every pile of smashed sex-craved bugs more grasshoppers gather to copulate.

In Fresnillo, we hope to see some Day of the Dead celebrations, but upon leaving our hotel and making our way to the main drag, we are left speechless by a river of of parents dragging their costumed kiddies to every store in sight silently begging for treats. My feelings are so terribly confused. I love seeing kids dressed up, and, there is no argument, Mexicans know how to rock a wicked costume, but to know that commercialism and the pursuit of candy had pushed such a rich and healing celebration completely into the background is, well, troublesome. Given that this day is actually All Soul's Day and not All Hallow's Eve - this feels like little more than a greedy commercial opportunity at the expense of a much profounder tradition.

And so on we ride into the wind and ever higher into the wide open expanse that is the centre of Zacatecas. Halfway down the road we find a traffic jam. A transport truck has turned over and lost all of its cargo. The cab is completely flattened and dozens of people are mucking about the boxes and broken glass salvaging any full bottles of beer they can carry. The driver is okay. As we arrive, fully drained, in Sombrerete home to some of Mexico's richest deposits of mineral ores. I can't help but think of the parallels between the plundering halloween wannabes of the previous day, our beer looters from the afternoon, and the plundering of the original conquistadors marauding about the Americas in search of gold and silver and any other grabable loot.

Friday, November 11, 2011

State Line Shuffle

Things have a way of falling into proper scale when out in the mountains on your bike. With the sudden end to our Day of the Dead tour we decided to head north out of Guadalajara. No plan, no preconceptions, just the vague idea that we would ride over the Espinazo del Diablo from Durango to Mazatlan. Plucking along highway 23 we had a tough time shedding Jalisco. It felt a little like a game of state line peek-a-boo as we crossed from Jalisco to Zacatecas to Jalisco to Zacatecas to Jalisco to Zacatecas to Jalisco to Zacatecas.

It was at the end of our first day that our love affair with burritos began. Having pushed harder than we should have and riding well into the night we arrived to a plate sized burrito stuffed with everything in the kitchen. The burritos that followed were never quite the same, but plenty tasty for different reasons every time.

Down the road we met the town of Teul a pretty, proud, and much forgotten about pueblo magico. Tucked away between meandering state borders, many dirt roads, and rather isolating canyons and mountains this region flies somewhat under the radar of the authorities which makes it choice turf for moving illegal merchandise. Unfortunately, there have been some flare ups over who controls the area. The locals say everything has calmed down now, but poor public perception will hang on and keep even local tourists away for a long time. Walking the streets, it's tough not to be influenced by local pride in who they are and where they are from. For us the real find were "gordas de horno en hoja de roble" aka corn dough, cheese, and strained yogurt baked on an oak leaf in a wood burning oven.

And then gorditas took front and centre stage. Chubby little corn or wheat disks patted into shape and then jammed with any variety of stews. It is tough to not stop at every roadside stand to sample each woman's rendition of carne deshebrada, picadillo, mole, or just plain and simple beans and cheese...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Guadalajara Bike Treats - the good and the better

One thing that can be tough to find while bike touring in Mexico is a plateful of good veggies that you haven't put together yourself. Imagine our surprise at seeing snack carts like this stationed all over the centre of Guadalajara...

I felt all virtuous seeing the cyclist stopping in to refuel at one of these veggie carts. Could it be that through him I was vicariously living the healthy lifestyle misnomer that Basil and I have somehow perpetuated as professional bike tourists? Truth be told, this is what I truly crave post ride:

Oh yeah, CHURROS! aka dough - hand kneaded, fried in fat, sliced open and filled with homemade caramel then rolled in sugar and cinnamon. So simple and yet when made by this trio of angels it is like ambrosia...

Clearly I will never be a Pan Am games contender, but I can certainly take you to the best churros in town. God Bless these Guadalajaran churros makers. To sample these treats while in Guadalajara go two blocks up from the San Juan de Dios market kiddie corner from Hotel Azteca (any afternoon except Sunday). You won't regret it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Change of Plans

“Life is not orderly. No matter how we try to make it so, right in the middle of it we die, lose a leg, fall in love, or drop a jar of applesauce.”
--Natalie Goldberg

As planned we started out pedalling on our Day of the Dead Tour in the Meseta Purepecha, but, following the unexpected and sudden twists that life so readily hands out, we ended up in Guadalajara. Sad to be losing our riding partners who returned home to address family matters, Basil and I turned to embrace what new direction this change of events might lead us.

We awoke the following morning having barely slept due to the noise of the traffic outside our hotel window. After some minutes of complaining to each other, we realized the noise of buses and trucks and cars had stopped completely. Peeking outside our window felt more like a dream than any possible reality - a river of bicycles silently glided past our hotel. What a relief it was to hear conversations and laughter instead of brakes and engines. It was Bicycle Sunday! better known as Via Recreactiva. On top of this, Guadalajara was also hosting the Pan Am Games. Everything was busy and everyone was at their friendliest.

So many distactions and yet with all our unexpected extra free time we were devoted to finding the maps needed to trace out a new cycling route. Top of mind was a trip along the road from Durango to Mazatlan also known as the "Espinazo del Diablo" (Devil's Backbone). Our first stop was to the bicycle friendly Casa Ciclista who offers a free place to crash and wash up for folks travelling by bicycle as well as city bikes for rent through Guadalajara's public bike rental program called bicipublica. Bernardo at Casa Ciclista pointed us in many directions for links that might help us gather more info. Best of all, he confirmed that our desired exit from the city was the lowest traffic of the two options we had for heading towards Zacatecas.

After gathering all the necessary maps, we decided to reward ourselves by attending our first ever Lucha Libre match - a definite must for pure gut busting Mexican entertainment.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guadalupe Saves

It was the seventh time I had called this hotel over a series of days, and the unhelpful young voice was not telling me what I wanted to hear. "You have to speak to Jesus to make a reservation for those dates". Previously nobody had answered the phone, and now I had someone on the line who wasn't equipped to make any decisions. This is not so uncommon, but, with enough persistence I usually get what I want. I tried to get around the need for me to have to personally speak to Jesus, but this voice wouldn't budge. At least I had the name of the absentee decision maker. "Okay, so when is Jesus in?" "Friday" she said and she hung up. I wasn't hopeful.

Four days later I made the indicated call to Jesus. This time a different reluctant voice told me that, "nobody knows where Jesus is as he has no fixed schedule". "Does he receive messages and call people back?" I suggested. "No" she scoffed and then agreed that I definitely needed to talk to Jesus to make a reservation. I was at an impasse. Exasperated, I sighed louder than I meant to and hesitated as I searched for the right words to move towards a solution, but my mind was blank. To get rid of me, she suggested that Sunday might be a good day to find Jesus.

On Sunday, I picked up the phone prepared to talk to Jesus. This time a much more confident voice gave me the bad news of Jesus' absence. I told her my story and she remembered us and our crew of strange bikes and cyclists. She offered that if I were to call back the following day, she would be able to tell me if she could hold some rooms for us. A little hopeful, but also wary, I asked for the name of the person willing to take ownership of my developing problem. "I'm Guadalupe" she brightly answered.

How many times a day do I see images of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico? She's on everything from towels to tattoos. She's in the market, on the bus, in the park, by the side of the road, on the wall outside the butcher shop. She's cut into tissue paper and strung decoratively about the streets. Heck, she's painted into hillsides. She's everywhere, and the next day, when she confirmed our room reservations, I was not surprised to be saved, not by Jesus, but by Guadalupe.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Day of the Dead

Leading up to the Day of the Dead sugar skulls and plastic wreaths abound in every town. Our little group of cyclists slowly plod their way up to the town of Angahuan, Michoacan at the edge of the lava flow of the volcano of Paricutin. Purepecha announcements echo across town like some kind of continuous chant, people scurry about town buying flowers and wreaths in preparation for the celebration of the Day of the Dead. The atmosphere in the cemetery is not somber. The whole community turns out to tidy the graves and make their offerings spending the evening and day with their dearly departed. Kids run and play. Prayers are made. Food is shared. Plates of tamales are extended to us. The feeling is overwhelmingly warm and welcoming.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Festive Oaxaca

It has been silent here a long while, but being in Oaxaca through Guelaguetza it is hard to keep quiet - especially through all the fireworks and festivities. Wandering amidst the carnival of colour and the hopeful energy that flows at events like this, it is difficult to understand the hesitation anyone might feel about coming here. As in life, if you keep your eyes and your heart open, Mexico is as beautiful as you allow her to be.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Mexican Doughboy?

Mexican bakeries abound even in the smallest of towns. Most evenings the aroma of baked goods wafts out into the streets tempting passersby to load up on what are mainly sweet breads. I have learned over the years that, for Mexican bread to be at all enjoyable, it really must be eaten the day it is purchased. In my opinion, breads here look and smell a lot more exciting than they taste. They certainly do come up with a good variety of shapes for their breads, but I have yet to discover a huge variance between their flavour and texture. Perhaps with time, I'll be better at discerning their subtleties. For now, I'll keep following those aromas and will never resist a roll that comes out of a wood burning oven - especially one that is lovingly created by a happy fat baker.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Isla Soyaltepec

What would life be like in a world without cars? A half hour boat trip through islands that are little more than tree tops takes you to the Island of Soyaltepec always remote, but now exceedingly remote since the flooding of the Temascal Reservoir. One benefit of the dam is that all 500 of Soyaltepec's residents have electricity, but the roads are grass or mud and stone and donkeys traffic all consumibles from the turkey studded wharf to the town at the top of the half hour climb. After days of rain the locals are pleased to see strangers picking their way along the muddy tracks towards the summit of their island. Local women proudly promote their embroidery, a local drunk keeps a good tune on an avocado leaf, livestock roams free and the 18th century church has the best view on the island.