Our journey in Central Mexico

I can’t believe that it is already February and it has a been a month since we celebrated New Years in Valle de Bravo. For this stretch, we explored Central Mexico, spending about two weeks riding from Valle de Bravo near Mexico City to Oaxaca and then spending another two weeks in the city itself learning Spanish and exploring. From Valle de Bravo, we rode to Toluca. The first day back on the road was 20km of up, up, up that burned my legs and tested my willpower. We stopped at a little village that night and it was amazing how we were invited right into people’s homes. I feel like the warm hospitality of these Central Mexican villages and towns really characterized this portion of our journey. That and the hills. We were mostly on a slant our whole ride. When we were not going up, we tended to be going down. There were little other tourists on this stretch until we got to Oaxaca and it was great to explore these little cowboy towns nestled in highland hills. We got to Toluca on Jan 6, on the Night of the Three Kings and the whole city had exploded in celebrations. There was a huge carnival in the park, street vendors lined the roads, clowns and people lighting lanterns filled one plaza while in the next plaza, the city had set up a snow wonderland with an ice skating rink, snowball fight areas and two icy ramps for snowtubing. Bryan and I went on the towering “adults” ramp and we flew down the icy ramp. That was one of the last things I expected to be doing on this trip in Mexico, snowtubing! After having our fill of churros and other carnival delights, we continued riding through the beautiful Lagunas de Zampoala, which made me think I was back in the wilderness of Northern California not just an hour’s drive from Mexico City.

After, the Lagunas de Zampuala, there was a wild 30km descent into Cuernavaca and then to ths historic city of Cuautla where we intended to stay only one night but ended up staying three because both the city and our Couchsurfing host, Katya, were so amazing. Cuautla is very important in Mexican history both for the siege of the insurgents fighting for Mexican independence from Spain and also where revolutionary hero Zapata is buried. Zapata is from a nearby village to the city. We explored Cuautla including seeing mummies in one of the earliest churches in the Americas at Tlayacapan, hiking to an ancient temple on top of a mountain in Tepoztlan, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

swimming in the volcanic springs at Agua Hediona and touring the fantastic ice cream shops of the area! After Cuautla, we rode in the shadow of the the huge volcano Popocatepetl. Popocatepetl was letting off a little steam in the distance with his legendary love as the Sleeping Woman mountain beside him. The Sleeping Woman mountain looked remarkably like a sleeping woman, down to the curve of her heel on her foot. Popocateptl and the woman is a Romeo and Juliet story from ancient Mexico. We cycled on Hwy 190 to Oaxaca.

I think most people take the toll freeway from Puebla to Cuautla so Hyw 190 felt very remote sometimes as we winded through the highland hills, encountering men herding their goats with their donkeys and mountainsides covered in cactuses and swaying grasses.

It is cowboy country here where horses and mules are considered modes of transport and cowboy hats are still in style. We rode first to Matamoros then to Acatlan where we stopped early that day and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon drinking beers in a terrace restaurant overlooking the small central plaza. From Acatlan, we rode to Huajuapan and then to Oaxaca.

We did a lot of climbing in this portion though the roads were graded very nicely and it was very manageable. For example, in one day from Huajuapan to Tierra Blanca, we probably did 1000m of climbing. Huajuapan at 1600m elevation and at Tierra Blanca where we camped the next night, we were at an elevation of 2200m including a huge descent into Tamzulapam which we then climbed out of after. In Oregon when we were first starting our journey, we would nervously talk about a 700ft ascent, which is under 250m. We apparently did four times that in one day.

We get into Oaxaca and we fall in love with the UNESCO World Heritage city. The colonial buildings and cobblestone streets are well preserved and it feels like we are walking around in a living, breathing museum. The city is so alive and on any day of the week, people are strolling around the streets at night, music is playing and street vendors are selling food and things. If you have nothing to do, you can just head to the tree covered zocalo where there seems to always be something happening. We have ballroom danced in the plaza under the leafy trees with dozens of other couples and a live band playing and we rocked out to a free outdoor concert.

The day after we arrived was a festival to El Senor de Esquipulas. We joined the procession of the statue around the streets of the historic centro and then enjoyed the incredible display of fireworks.

We took a weeklong Spanish course with Oaxaca Spanish Magic, a great school. We still need to practice to speak faster but now I feel like I have a firm foundation. We visited the ancient Zapotec city of Monte Alban where astronomer priests and warriors ruled on top of the mountain and inhabited continuously for over 13 centuries, this site is known as one of the first places where the development of state in the Americas is seen.

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Then, we visited the ancient giant cypress tree at El Tule. Monte Alban is now a scenic ruin but this tree is still alive and growing. This tree, which is 14 metres in diameter (42metres circumference!) and the stoutest tree in the world, was already growing when the city Monte Alban was at its height. We visited the huge, bustling market in Tlacolula and went to a little slice of paradise at Hierve el Agua with its spring fed pools overlooking mountains and petrified waterfalls.

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Oaxaca is also a food lover’s haven as the land of chocolate and the seven moles. We sampled the different moles and also learned how to make mole rojo and negro, the hardest of all seven!

Our hotel is also just around the corner from chocolate street, a street lined with chocolate shops, factories and cafes. One of the chocolate factories on the corner nearest to us was like our second home and we were there daily drinking frothy hot chocolate and cold chocolate milk shakes.

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The blog is copied below. However, for regular updates and the tracking map where our SPOT satellite updates our daily location to so you can see where we’ve been for a week, check out our blog for this epic adventure at  http://theworldcan.org/biketrip.html.

Jan 6, 2014 – On the Road Again from Valle de Bravo to Toluca

The road climbed out of Valle de Bravo and kept on climbing. We only made it about 20km the first day but that was 20km of ascent, ranking as one of the longest if not the longest uphill stretches we have ridden on our trip so far…and this was after 3 weeks off from riding! It was a bit hard realizing that we will take 2 days to ride to Toluca when it is only one hour in a car. However, sitting on the side of the highway at a little village that did not exist on our map while Bryan searched for water, I put things in perspective. As I was sitting there on the guardrail, I could hear all of the sounds of the community around me. Behind me and on the other side of the highway up in the forest were women washing clothes and talking with each other. One man whistled for his partner, who came walking leading a cow by some rope. People were working in the field and periodically, a herder would bring their flock of sheep home walking them down the road surrounded by their family’s pack of dogs, making sure no sheep wandered away. The community was perched on a slope surrounded by mountains. Cycling, I felt so much more in touch with the landscape and immersed in this little community. The time was already 3:30pm and we decided to ask around for camping. I ask the first person I see and he says yes. Enrique is a taxi driver and we are camped out beside his house. His aunt, who is across the street, runs a little shop out of her house. As we set up, Enrique’s cousin, Vincente, and his cute 3 year old daughter, Alexa, comes up to talk to us. Vincente and I talk with each other for almost an hour in bits of Spanish and English and he invites us over for dinner. We have handmade maize tortillas, warmed up by his wife Lydia over a cooking fire. On the side are fried chorizo and nopales, veggie rice and some pickled chilis to go into the tortillas. The nopales, stripes of the prickly pear cactus pads, have always been too slimy for my liking but Lydia cooks them up so they are really tasty, like a chewier green pepper. We sit around the fire in the middle of their dirt floored living room/kitchen after. We laugh with his two beautiful daughters, who are eating fruit loops cereal with milk for dinner, and I help his wife and mother bundle these edible greens for sale in Valle’s market tomorrow.  In the morning, these two adorable kids from his aunt’s house across the street comes over with warm toasted bread slathered with butter and sprinkled with sugar. Bryan goes over to the store to buy a Coke and comes back with the bottle and two coffees that she had prepared for us! Everyone has been so amazingly nice. The traffic gets heavier closer to Toluca. As we get closer to the Centro, a seperated bike path that would make the Mayor of Vancouver envious appears. We have our own set of traffic lights for the bike path and when there isn’t, there are these lovely green signs that say yield to cyclists! We get into the centro and find a nice, clean cheap hotel right on the central square. Outside, the town is a huge party. It is the celebration of the Epiphany, the celebration of the three kings, of the three wise men, which marks the last celebration of the holiday season. There is a huge carnival in the park with mini roller coasters, rows of food vendors and people selling balloons. There are three very popular photo taking opportunities where there are scenes of the three kings and you can sit on their camel with them for a photo.  Roads were blocked off as people filled the streets. We sat in a square beside the cathedral eating pizza and people were lighting lanterns. It seemed a bit of a fire risk to me to light up these paper lantern hot air balloons and let them float over the city but they were very beautiful to see drifting up into the twilight sky up by the majestic domes of the large cathedral. Infront of the cathedral was a city funded fun park. There was again, more food (I’m so stuffed by now that I’m too full for ice cream! Tragedy!) and more little shops and more balloon vendors holding their a giant bouquet of colourful orbs. Here however, there was an ice rink with people skating around and a snowball fight area. Bryan and I went snowtubing on a huge ice ramp. Just before I was launched down the icy ramp, the attendent asked me “Fuerte” strong….or some other Spanish word, which I think meant easy. I didn’t answer quick enough and he said, “ok, fuerte” and whipped me down the ramp. It was pretty fun…and random. I certainly did not think when I woke up in the morning in the little farming community that I would be snowtubing tonight! We decided to stay another day in Toluca to work out maps of where we are going. Though I have not heard of Toluca as a tourist destination and really only experienced it as a transit stop at its huge bus terminal, Toluca is unexpectedly pleasant – it is easy to walk around in and food is avaliable everywhere. Toluca seems to be a huge fan of tortas, Mexican sub sandwiches packed with your choice of ham, sausages, hot dogs, multiple types of cheese, and/or egg and salsa. It is bascially your arteries worst nightmare but they sure are tasty. Torta restaurants seem to be almost every third shop, interspaced by ice cream, churros (deep fried doughnut stick) and pizza restaurants. I have even seen restaurants that serve all three, tortas, pizza and ice cream. Unfortunately, though I love ice cream and ice cream places tempt me on every corner, it is actually too cold here since we are at a high elevation. It was kind of funny becuase we were talking to a friend from home and I was complaining that it was quite cold here. “I have to wear my jacket!” I lamented. She replied that it was -1 degrees Celcius in Vancouver right now…and raining.

Jan 8, 2013 – Skirting by Mexico City: Toluca to Cuernavaca via Lagunas de Zampoala

We were on the main highway from Toluca to Mexico City. There are 8 lanes total, four in the middle “freeway” type lanes that bypassed the towns and two lanes on each side going one direction to serve as a more “local” highway. The outside lanes are like an extended merging /bus lane, a mediator between the gas stations, food stops, streets and bus stops that towns have and the busy highway. Actually, if you count the “two-laned” seperated bike route, the highway was a total of 10 lanes of traffic. At first, we were so excited to see the bike route, which was smoothly paved and seperated from the busy car traffic. However, while I think the heart was in the right place, something went wrong with the planning of the bike lane. Because the bike lanes were in the middle of the highway, when they abruptly ended, they also left us in the middle of the highway! We would have to cross over to the right until the bike lane started again when we would have to cross the highway again then jump a curb. It’s great that there are bike lanes and fine looking ones at that but unfortunately, we felt that it might have been more dangerous to use them! We turn off Hwy 15 at Ocoyoacac and enter a populated countryside. The road is busy and narrow but traffic is very courteous. We just have to ask people if we’re on the right road. We have learned the magic number of 3. When we were clarifying directions out of Santiago Tianguisteco, we had one person tell us with clear details, “go two blocks this way then turn left and then go straight…”. We asked someone else just to be sure and they gave us the exact opposite directions. We asked a third person to be sure and he agreed with the second man and we were off. For us being so close to Mexico City, one of the biggest cities in the world, we are riding through quaint towns and a patchwork quilt of farmland that drape up the mountain slopes. Even the smallest town perched on a slope of the mountainside seems to have a minature grand cathedral with two bell towers. We crossed a chain of mountains at Lagunas de Zampola, which I highly recommend to cycle. We slowly ascended through grassy meadows with a slow stream flowing through it and everygreen forests with lush green carpets of moss and ferns. As we cycled through a tunnel of evergreen trees, from pine to a flat needle everygreen at the very top of the pass, with only a few cars passing us here and there and the air cold in the shade like in the Redwood groves, I was reminded of Northern California. The elevation of the National Park, which was already after a bit of a descent, is at an elevation of about 2,900 m (9,500 ft) above sea level. Cuernavaca, the city where we ended up today, is at an elevation of 1,510 m (4,950ft). We dropped almost a kilometer and a half in elevation! You can feel the change of elevation in the air. The air becomes warmer and more moist. We are immediately transported from Northern California to the tropics.  We enter Cuernavaca and it is bustling. Buses clog up the road as it one buses infront of us, buses behind us and beside us. We make our way to around the Centro where Bryan and I  walk around the narrow, busy streets filled with shoe and bra stores, places to sell your gold, ice cream shops and roasted chicken places. The Zocalo, the central square, is a leafy place surrounding an ornate gazebo with stately colonial buildings on all four sides. Walking under the trees made me feel like I was in a rainforest with birds sqwacking above me. There were lots of people chilling in its park benches and little stalls selling food. Tortas are everywhere. Also, the central square seemed to be populated by an incredible number of balloons with vendors crowding all of the plaza’s entrances. We went for all you can eat pizza at the marketplace overlooking the square. Don’t underestimate hungry cyclists! Bryan and I both ate just shy of a whole pizza…each.

Jan 11, 2013  – Mummies, catherdrals and ice cream OH MY! : Our adventures in Cuautla

We had actually only planned on staying one day in Cuautla but ended up staying three nights because Katya, our couchsurfing host, was so amazing and showed us all around the area, which is packed full of ancient and modern history. In the shadow of the huge, active Popocatepetl volcano smoking on the horizon, this area has been important to cultures from the prehistoric to the present. We visited Tlayacapan, a “Pueblo Magico” with streets paved with cobblestones and redtiled roofs on old colonial mansions where the former monastery of San Juan Bautista towers over the town like an old fort. It is from the 1530s and the old monastry courtyard area has been converted into a museum with art and other relics and mummies! About 39 mummies, including children,  were found under the main nave of the church floor. There was a belief that you could reach heaven sooner if you were buried in the church as close to the altar as possible. Katya tells us that these bodies were naturally mummified due to compsition of the soil. We went to Oaxtepec, a nearby town with another old monastry church. These churches are a part of the “Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatepetl” World Heritage Site, a group of fourteen 16th century monastries that served as a model for monastries and evangelism in the Americas. These first monasteries by the Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian missions  are large and grand with thick, plain walls, resembling an old castle fortress towering over the small towns. Afterwards, we went for delicious ice cream across the street. Only in Mexico can you go for a church and ice cream tour! It is amazing how seeped in history this whole area is. Zapata’s masoleum where his bones are buried is just down the street in centro Cuautla. He is from a little village near here. The Mexican rebels, including their leader Morelos, fighting for independence from Spain came to Cuatla because of the railway and the Spanish royalist forces besiged the town from Feb 9 to May 2, 1812. It’s interesting because the street names mark historial events. For example, the next street from Katya’s house is “Captain Bollas sin cabeza”, translating directly to “Bollas without head” and marks to location of where the captain lost his head in the seige. Because Katya’s house is right by the rail station, her house is in the middle of the historic centro. She tells us that there’s a lot of ghost stories in the area including her house. There are tales of buried treasure from people who died in the seige and didn’t want their family heirlooms being passed into the wrong hands and the dead talking to people today in their dreams about the location. Katya tells about her aunt who dreamed of the buried treasure in their house once but was too scared to act on it. After a little while, the family got together and dug a deep trench but apparently because they had included people who were not family in the excavation party, the treasure was “moved” and not found. We also visited the nearby town of Tepoztlan,  another Pueblo Magico quaint red tiled roof and cobblestone roads town that looks like it’s out of a page from a history book. It is on the other side of the mountains from Tlayacapan. These mountains rise up in sheer cliffs as rock spires lumped together. Up at the top of these mountains is a small pyramid, El Tepozteco, which is reached by a beautiful hike through the jungle and climbs through canyons up 400m.  Fig trees grow out of the old walls and rocks of the trail and butterflies flitter about in the dense green. Once at the top, the view is absolutely amazing as you can see the town below you, the rock spires of the mountains around you and the landscape dropping down to the flat plain where Cuautla is far below. The pyramid temple is simple but it is really amazing that people carried all these rocks up here to make the pyramid and trail. Bryan amuses himself with the pack of ferret raccoons who get right close to the people. He had them drinking out of…my waterbottle! It is a really special place. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks this as others agree that Tepoztlan is a special place. According to myth, Tepoztlan is the birthplace of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god widely-worshiped in ancient Mexico. Today, there are stories of UFOs here and of mystic magnetic lines of the world passing under the town, energy lines that are said to line up with many of the ancient wonders. The well-perseved old colonial buildings lining the cobblestone streets are filled with tarot readings, massage places, and alternative therapies from the traditional temazcal sauna to a magnetic foot bath that draws out illness in your body making the clear water rust coloured. To finish off our amazing adventures in and around Cuautla, we went to Agua Hediona, a series of huge outdoor pools that cascade from the volcanic spring in the corner. The water comes out at about 26 degrees celcius and orginates from the huge, active Popocatepetl volcano smoking on the horizon. Apparently, when the volcano was erupting, the water came out hotter and more yellowish! Agua Hediona ranks as one of the top natural mineral water springs in the world for a high mineral content. When we got out of the pool, our skin and hair was silky soft and we were so relaxed.

Jan 13, 2013 – 5000km crossed from Cuautla to Acatlan on the road to Oaxaca

It is amazing to think that 5000km is 25% of our PanAmerican journey! Katya, our couchsurfing host in Cuautla, joked that the weather was going to turn and we would be in Cuautla  all week. We joked that we should get her to teach us Spanish. It was actually kind of half joking as thunderclouds rolled in the horizon. In the morning of Jan 12th however, it was a clear blue sky and it was a beautiful ride through farmland framed in mountains. The huge volcano Popocatepetl was letting off a little steam in the distance with his legendary love as the Sleeping Woman mountain beside him. The Sleeping Woman mountain looked remarkably like a sleeping woman, down to the curve of her heel on her foot. Popocateptl and the woman is a Romeo and Juliet story from ancient Mexico. At 66 km from Cuautla to Matamoros, we rode the farthest on Jan 12th since our holidays and then realized that Oaxaca is actually not that far away! Only about 300km down the windy road. We are in mountain country and every moment seems to be spent on a slant. If we’re not going up, we’re going down the other side of the mountain. We climb 5km, we decend 5km. It is actually kind of rewarding and keeps life interesting. The grade is always quite manageable and the traffic is patient, passing with lots of room and often waiting behind us until it is safe. When they drive by, the whistle, honk their horn and holler encouragements in Spanish. We are not the only bicycles on the road. We met up with a group of 12 Mexican cyclists biking from Mexico City to Oaxaca in 4 days as a part of a religious prigrimage. On the back of their bikes are blue and white cloth banners of Jesus flapping in the wind. Many of them were cycling fixed gear bikes! They also had two support vehicles with family members and all of their stuff. It is really awesome to see local people touring. You go to a small town that seems so remote, Tehuitzingo in this case, where life seems more simple, horses and mules are considered modes of transport and cowboy hats are still in style, and you meet people with a passion for mountain biking, cycle touring and travelling. Our mechanic, Israel, today pulled out a shiny new smartphone, logged onto facebook and showed me pictures of his four mountain bikes including two little ones for his kids. Then he showed me pictures of his motorbike. He toured on his motorbike from Mexico to Columbia and we laughed at how it took him 20 days to drive what will take us probably 6 months to cycle. It’s crazy to think that the buses passing us will reach Oaxaca in a few hours though we won’t be there until the end of the week. I guess from Oaxaca, a flight to Vancouver is only a few hours too! There is something about travelling slow and with your personal power that moves you, as I’m sure the Mexican cycle-pilgrims agree. I got some work done on my bike, remarkably only the second of this whole trip, after realizing that a part of my front rack was snapped on one side and cracking on the other. We think it’s probably from the combination of my big front panniers and the stress on the rack as I bailed off the road to avoid a crash in La Paz. Anyways, after a little tour of what the little town had for shops, we were led to Israel by recommendation from all other other places. Israel did an awesome job sautering my alumnium racks and only charged us $ 50 pesos to repair both of my front racks and wouldn’t accept the tip I wanted to give him. He only asked for our Facebook and other contact info so we could keep in touch. After the visit to the mechanic shop, it was already 3:30 pm. We rode for another few kilometres then decided to call it a day. We camped out in front of a sky blue painted church covered in strings of red, white and green flags drapped over the front stairs, colourful paper flower garlands strung above the front entrance patio and Christmas lights over the door. As we were preparing dinner a bit later, children start to flock into the church. The woman with them, Cecilia, blares music from the church tower megaphones and children are running around, kicking around a ball and watching us cook. A table with bottles of Pepsi and two large wreath shaped breads decorated with sugar and candy fruit is placed infront of the church door. Cecilia tells me that they are having a “rosco” (spelling unclear…) party where the bread is cut for each person and if your piece has a little plastic baby in it, then you throw a tamales party on Feb 2. We didn’t find any babies in our pieces but Cecilia jokes that there was one in mine and I just have to come back in Feb. Soon the bread is eaten, children start filtering home and the church is quiet once again ….other than the symphony of crickets and dogs barking in the town and lively Mexican tunes with brass instruments blasting away and an almost polka beat rising from a home in the distance. The next day, we made a long, gradual ascent through a long narrow valley through hills until Nuevo Horizontes then it was a marvelous gradual descent for the rest of the day basically. We had lunch at a Pemex station at the beginning of Acatlan. Someone came up to us and we started talking about our trip. When he found out how long we were riding, he asked us if this was some sort of pilgrimage, a pennance to the church for atonement. When we said that we’re just doing this for fun, he said we’re crazy. We thought to ourselves, what’s crazy is a sin that would require cycling the length of the Americas to atone! When we were done lunch around 1pm, we went back out into the sunshine and quickly realized how bloody hot it was. We decided to have a beer, which turned into another and us chilling out in the little 2nd floor patio restaurant that overlooked the zocalo for the rest of the afternoon. Acatlan has stunning churches from the 18th century with a beautiful tiled domes. Around the church in the zocalo is a leafy central square with delicate ornate metal chairs and gazebo in the center. Near to the church was a bustling market with clothes, fruit, vegetables and meat.  It has been great to explore these little cowboy towns that dot the beautifully dramatic, hilly countryside.

Jan 14, 2014 – Hills and Headwind into Oaxaca State

We rode out of Acatlan and there was a 29km/hr ENE wind, which translated to mostly a speed crushing headwind for us. However, we were doing so many switchbacks up and around hills that even a headwind was partially a crosswind sometimes and more rarely, sometimes a tailwind. It felt like we were ascending all day, struggling to cycle 7km/hr as we grinded up hills. The hills all about the same level so you would grind up to the top of one hill, expecting a bit of downhill after. There is a short downhill bursts sometimes that quickly led to more hills or sometimes you find that you go along a ridge for a bit then up another hill. We find that roads try to follow valleys and canyons to minimize the ups and downs but today, it just seemed like a wrinkled blanket, hills after hills after hills with no easy path through so the road zigzagged all around them unpredictably. It was a kind of game for us to guess where the road would lead though I stopped expecting downhills after a long ascent. I guess that’s one lesson of the landscape today – have no expectations! Don’t expect things of the world because it is doing its own thing but instead be pleasantly surprised when we do get a bit of downhill and can go -woot woot!- maybe 15km/hr in the headwind. Though the day was hard, it was also a great day. Bryan and I got to spend a lot of time riding with each other and it was great. Bryan would sing to me as we grinded up the slope or we would breathlessly talk with each other. Othertimes, we would be quiet in contemplation of the amazing landscape. The landscape was beautiful and the traffic was very courteous. People cheered at us out of their windows as they finally passed us, giving us peace/victory signs, thumbs up, waving, whistling, honking and yelling something repetive and cheering like in Spanish though I can never actually catch what they’re saying. Turkey vultures soared above our heads and just when we thought the journey was so hard, a man with a wide brimmed ivory cowboy hat and his goats would walk by in the bush. As slow as we are cycling, it is still much faster than walking! Green cactuses shot up from the earth straight and tall, a counterpoint to the gnarled leafless trees with twisted and curled brown branches that also shared the mountain slopes. Golden grasses rippled in the wind and sometimes we would pass little patches of tilled earth and old harvested maize fields with only a little part of the stalk closest to the ground left after the corn has been harvested for people and the rest of the plant for animals . A plastic bag would blow across the road – the tumbleweed of the modern era I guess. At the end of the day, we descended about 350m down into the city of Huajuapan de Leon, a bustling place with a beautiful old catheral in the centro. We had some delicious chicken mole, a cocoa based sauce, and some hot chocolate made before our eyes with a wooden spindle to churn the decadent concoction. Oaxaca state is known for its chocolate and we look forward to much more! As we look up to the mountains beyond the city, we also look forward to more climbing!

January 18, 2014 – Dramatic mountain landscapes from Huajuapan to Nochitxtlan

It’s amazing to think about how much we’re climbing. Huajuapan at 1600m elevation and at Tierra Blanca where we camped the next night, we were at an elevation of 2200m including a huge descent into Tamzulapam which we then climbed out of after. We probably climbed about 1000 metres that day in total. In Oregon when we were first starting our journey, we would nervously talk about a 700ft ascent, which is under 250m. We apparently did four times that in one day. The landscape was dramatic with cutting cliffs, sweeping grasslands, mountain slopes covered with golden grasses and cactus trees, overlooking a field of mountains each fading in shades of blue in the distance. Men herded goats along the steep mountain sides and we saw donkeys and horses teethered on the side of the road to feed on the grasses and nervously look at every passing car. Well, the horses did. The donkeys looked generally bored. There were little farm patches everywhere and we followed river for a little bit as it cascaded over rocks into little turqouise pools beside our ride. After Tamzulapam, we rode through a long valley. It was still rising but very gradually. At the end of the valley, it started to ascend through the hills once more, but less steeply than this morning. We are camped out in the church yard in Tierra Blanca. Our highest point of the ride to Oaxaca is just over the 2400m line on our map and we climbed to that the next morning. As we climbed up the slope, a Mexican cyclist from Tamzulapam came up beside us in his slick racing bike decked out entirely in spandex. We talked for a bit before he raced off ahead of us. He loves to ride and tells us he does these hills everyday before work. There was one peak, a short dip, and then another higher peak with a smaller third peak in elevation to go and then it was a wild descent into Yanhuitlan. Yanhuitlan is in a large valley and the landscape is dominated by a huge old cathedral that looks more like a fortress than a place of worship. It is tall with thick rock walls and arch supports. Construction started in 1541 though there was a smaller church here before that. If you think about that timeframe, Columbus only reach the Americas in 1492! This church is one of the earliest on the continent and looking at it, it definately represents a mission statement – strength and domination from the outside, loftly ceilings and richly decorated panels of biblical scenes on the side. We jumped onto the toll highway after Nochitxtlan and camped on the side of the highway about 20km past the town.

Jan 20, 2014 – Welcomed to Oaxaca City with a Bang

Oaxaca is a beautiful city with old colonial architecture, elaborate churches seemingly on every street corner and bustling markets everywhere. The historical centro is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO has inventoried a total of 1,200 historical monuments in the city centro and states that the iconic architecture and buildings represent a cultural tradition of more than four centuries of art and history. The city is incredible with markets everywhere and every building seems out of a history book. The Zocalo is a huge plaza covered with tall, shady trees surrounded by restaurants and cafes with lots of things happening and people gathering. When we walked by, we stopped to listen to a 20 piece brass band playing with old couples dancing and mescal shots given to people in the crowd in shot glasses made from roma tomatoes. Balloons and food truck stalls where everywhere and children running around wild. Food has been an interesting experience in this city. We are staying right by the 20 de Noviembre market with one building as entirely for little eateries. It is a bit of an intense experience going into the market as once you step in the door, people are flagging you to go to their little eatery. When you stop to take a look at their menu often written on the wall of the kitchen facing the benches where you sit to eat, they spout off the whole menu to you in rapid Spanish. Quite incredible actually. We had a delcious breakfast there, which I had a hot chocolate with! I love that I can have chocolate with every meal practically! We are staying right by chocolate street where the stores grind cocoa, make moles, whip up hot chocolate drinks and there is always a delicious aroma in the air. Last night, we went to the prestigous Church of Carmen Alta celebrating the Feast of Our Lord of Esquipulas, a grand finale of a week of celebrations in honor of the Black Christ crucified statue on the altar. This is the event that the Mexican cycle-pilgrims were heading to though we didn’t see them in the crowds of people. El Senor de Esquipulas is orginally from Esquipulas, Guatemala, a site of pilgrimage from pre-Christan times which has continued to this day to the statue of the Black Christ. The statue was carved in dark wood to represent local peoples. However, there seems to be other stories of the Black Christ such as from Valle de Bravo where two local indigenous groups were fighting. One of these groups were feasting at their church and the other group raided and burned down the church. The smoke made the statue turn black, which also represented the hate between the two groups. Seeing their violence and hate visualized in the statue of Christ crucified led them to peace. It is not completely clear what the story of El Senor de Esquipulas is but what is clear is that the statue loves a bang. It started the previous night around 4am. I woke up to a start at a loud BANG! Then, BANG BANG BANG BANG!! Fireworks were going off in the city and throughout the morning, there were periodic fireworks being let off. Around 7pm, mass started with incense, beautiful choral singing and of course, more fireworks shot off the roof of the elegant neoclassical style 17th century cathedral into the evening twilight. After mass, El Senor de Esquipas is brought out of the church and placed onto a white mobile altar decorated with candles with a light under gauzy white trim to be carried by four people down the street (and another one carrying the generator). The altar is proceeded and followed by men and women carrying tall decorated banners with pictures of saints. A brass band is immediately before the alter and a drum and pipe dual leads the whole procession. There is almost a hundred of the tall banners topped with a bronze cross slowly walking in single file down the road and all around are the worshippers and us walking alongside the procession through the city. The pipe music is haunting, repeating a melody which seems to have indigenous orgins over and over. The brass band is triumphant and loud, playing something resembling a 16th century European waltz. Both are interspersed by the loud bang of fireworks. When the procession kept stopping, I first thought it was to wait for everyone to catch up. Then, I realized that the procession was stopping periodically because less than 100m infront, someone would set off fireworks in the middle of the street. We get back to the chuch and El Senor is put away in the church again with the brass band blarring. The brass band continues to play and people in large paper mache dolls start to dance, twirling around estatically and swinging their cloth arms around. The music is lively and the band builds with to a tempo with a fury and the dancers whirl, shimmy and fly their feet. After the big dolls, the fireworks begin with el toro, the bull. A paper mache bull rigged with a lot of fireworks is placed on top of someone’s head. The fuse is lit and the person dances while the fireworks explode above them in sprays of light and fire.  A crowd circles around the dancer and is sprayed by the fireworks as the dancer swings the bull around. There are five bull dances then comes the grand finale. It starts with the theme song from Pirates of the Caribbean then the explosions start. There is a three story frame in the courtyard of the church rigged up with fireworks. Different songs play and different parts of the frame is lit up with exploding fireworks that both display an image and other fireworks that propell the structure in a circle. There was a spinning fiery El Senor de Esquipulas, not black but fire bright, with the words ¿Hasta cuando? -“Until when?” lit up below it. It was a dazzling display of light which ended with two angels at the top being lit up with fireworks that started spining the angels off the structure and into the night sky. Today, we relaxed and explored the city a bit more though our chill out days are going to be a lot more limited in the future! We signed up with a week long Spanish course with Spanish Magic (www.oaxacaspanishmagic.com). They came highly recommended to us and when we dropped by this morning to their open couryard classrooms, it was full of students and teachers clustered around the white little tables and white boards speaking Spanish in the garden. We talked to them and they were very flexible, starting our week long class on tomorrow, a Tuesday rather than the normal start date of Monday. The director herself came and gave us some delicious hot chocolate. We are really looking forward to learning more Spanish with them!

Jan 25, 2014 – I love Oaxaca!

We are settling into a bit of a routine here in Oaxaca. We leave our hotel at around 8:30am, walk up the street to the Oxxo corner store for a coffee and then down Hidalgo St towards the Zocalo where we buy the best tamales on the corner of Hidalgo and 20 de Noviembre streets. We have classes from 9 to 1 then lunch and then we return back to the school for a language exchange with a local brilliant medical student named Pamela. It is so amazing how much we have learned in just four days. Bryan says that he has learned more Spanish in four days than he learned  in four years of French at school. I feel like I have learned more Spanish in under a week here than three years in high school, and I somehow won the Spanish award in my grade 12 year! I think it is a combination of excellent teachers at Oaxaca Spanish Magic Language School (www.oaxacaspanishmagic.com) and the great environment of Oaxaca where you can practice Spanish everyday, every moment of the day if you want to. It has been great to walk around and understand random words in other people’s conversations as you pass by. It makes you feel so much more HERE. In the afternoons and the weekend, we have been exploring the city. We went to the Bascilica of La Soladad, a beautiful 17th century cathedral built in Baroque style laid out in the shape of a Latin cross. The front facade is gorgeous, carved in with pillars and statues including the patron saint of the Virgin Mary kneeling and weeping at the foot of the cross right above the main entrance doors. The sanctuary is dedicated to Our Lady of Solitude, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Interesting fact is that it was intentionally built with low spires and towers so to better resist earthquakes! After we walked up to the ampitheater on the mountainside, Cerro del Fortin, up a beautiful tree lined stair walkway, where we looked over the entire city and valley. It was really interesting to see the valley that we cycled into Oaxaca from, all of the buildings in the centro and we were identifying churches, the markets, and the zocalo, then looking at the valley we’re going to be leaving by. One evening, Flo, Oaxaca Spanish Magic’s director, decided to take us out on a little tour of the city after treating us to some delicious mezcal. We walked over to the Palacio museum where we got to see two amazing murals by an Oaxacan artist. One over the main staircase depicted the history of Mexico highlighting Zapata, Benito Juarez (who was born here and the city is named Oaxaca de Juarez in honor of him), Benito Juarez’s wife (afterall, behind every great man is a great woman, Flo said) and Morelos. In another staircase in the corner of the Palacio, there was a wrap around mural depicting the history of Oaxaca. This mural showed a lot of the indigenous traditions in the area, Monte Alban, Mitla, Hierve de Agua and highlighted maize as so important to Oaxacan culture. Talking about Oaxacan culture, in addition to the murals, there was also a huge tlayuda. It took 300kg of maize to make this huge tortilla that was imprinted and painted with items of Oaxacan culture and history. After, we walked to the Majordomo chocolate factory where we saw them turn 1kg of cacao beans, cinnamon sticks, almonds and sugar into a bag full of hot chocolate powder. They put it through two grinders to make it the perfect consistency. The air was full of delicious chocolate aroma in the air. After our amazing little tour, we jumped into taxis to a local restaurant that Flo found on the outskirts of the city whose speciality is tlayudas. It was delicious and great company too. We have been dancing in the zocalo. It is amazing that on a Wednesday night, the streets are filled with people out and about. There are as much people on the streets on a weekday night here in Oaxaca as there was on the streets of Vancouver during the Olympics. The old colonial buildings are lit up with lights as people stroll on the cobblestone walkways. At the zocalo there is a band playing and people are dancing danzon, a stately ballroom style dance. The dance floor was filled with old couples dancing though there were a bunch of younger dancers as well and a crowd surrounding them watching both the dancers and the musicians.  It is a weekly tradition in the zocalo. Bryan and I watch for a bit and then head to one of the entrances of the dance floor. The guard looks at us with surpise and says, “You’re going to dance? Really? Yeah go for it!!” He seems excited that we’re willing to join the dancing. There are no other gringos on the dance floor. We stumble around the dance floor, laughing, trying to catch the beat and the stately movements of the other couples. The others are dressed their best, in heels, dresses and suits. We are perhaps the only ones in sandals and hoodies, with my purse slung over my shoulder. I look back over to the guard and he gives me a huge smile and a thumbs up. The music gets faster and faster. The other dancers twirl around the dance floor. We keep to our simple square ballroom dance waltz routine but are having tons of fun getting caught up in the energy of the dance. I think our problem with ballroom dancing is two-fold: I am terrible at following and Bryan has a hard time hearing the beat. However, I think our full enthusaism makes up for it! Last night on Friday, we got to try our dance moves in the park again. There was a free outdoor concert with bands after bands taking the stage. We ended up watching three different bands, the first was a rock band, the second was a brass band with amazing dancing beats and the third was a chill ska band. We danced for hours in the zocalo, interspersed with an ice cream break when the bands were changing. Today, we visited Monte Alban today where the ruling Zapotec elite once lived high over the peasants in the Valley of Oaxaca and on the terraced mountainsides. It was the the first planned urban centre in the Americas, the biggest pre-Hispanic city in Oaxaca and was continuously inhabited for 13 centuries from 500BC to 850 AD.  Temples for ceremonies and astrological observation were set around a 300 m long and 200 m wide Gran Plaza. There was an imposing South platform with a 40 metre wide staircase leading up to two pyramid structures. Bryan and I went there right away and ate a great little picnic lunch of tortas, water and a cookie overlooking the main plaza and the view of the mountains and valley all around us. The whole top of the mountain has been leveled to create this ceremonial center and the logistics of that boggles my mind, as with somehow getting all the stone up here. On the side of the arrowhead shaped observatory, there are carvings of scenes in the stone depicting conquests of Monte Alban over other towns between 100 BC and 200 AD with the conquered peoples shown as upsidedown heads under the glyph of Monte Alban.  Observation of the skies was really important to the city, in which a priestly elite ruled. In one of the buildings (Edificio P), there was a small hole in the staircase only the size of a missing stone brick. Underneath that was a small tunnel and a narrow chimney that looked up to the hole. The sun would shine through that hole into the tunnel at the sun’s zenith on the equinoxes. If you clapped infront of this structure, in front of the window, the sound would also echo, become louder and a bit more warbled as well.  Stelae  18 is a tall pillar of stones from 100 BC to 300 AD was an astrological instrument to verify midday and winter and summer solstices. The shadow of the stelae is at its maximum to the north on the winter solstice and then decreases to the south during the summer solstice. The importance of astrological issues is also found in the ball court. The ball court game was apparently really important to help people resolve conflicts from land disputes to trade controls. The rubber ball represented the heavenly bodies: the sun, moon and sacred Venus. The winner of the game is said to have the support of these gods. The staircased sides of the ball court was not for sitting but was covered with lime and a part of the ball court. Players would bump the ball with their hips, elbows and knees and there is a disc located at the center of the wall which perhaps was key to winning points in the game. Opposite of the South platform is North platform set on a rock outcrop that is almost as big as the Gran Plaza itself. There is a sunken patio and numerous tombs and ceremonial centres. From up here, there is 360 degree views of the mountains and valley below including modern Oaxaca city and surrounding villages. Breathtaking.

Jan 26, 2013 – Market day in Tlacolula by Oaxaca city

We took a collective taxi (aka a taxi that thinks it’s a bus and takes on passengers going to the same location or on the route) 29km out of Oaxaca to Tlacolula village where it was their fantastic Sunday market today. After riding our bikes and going about 20km an hour… in the best of times… and usually just pushing pedals on the side of the road, it is always a little intense to actually be in a vehicle. We go so fast though I look on the spedometer and it’s saying a very reasonable 100km/hr on the highway. I feel like we’re in a video game, swerving around cars to pass them while avoiding oncoming traffic. The music blaring from the radio sounds like Mexican nintendo music. Before we know it, we are in Tlacolua. On Sundays, the market day of this village, it looks like the normal market explodes out of its usual buildings and takes over all of the surrounding streets. The streets all around the centro are tarped over to provide shade and look like colourful leaves laping over each other over the bustling market. The market seems almost endless. I think Bryan and I walked around for 3 hours and I’m not sure if we saw it all. There was everything for sale from fresh fruits and vegetables, to clothes, to blankets, to local artisan crafts to saws, knives and other tools. You want some spicy seasoned grasshopers to snack on? They were heaped in large baskets. Want a live turkey? Vendors had turkeys by their feet , waving them to bypassing potential customers. Vendors rolled carts with homemade ice cream through the hot, busy crowds offering delicious cool treats. Other vendors wheeled a dolly full of large clay pots decorated with an emerald green glaze. People walked around selling bunches of green onions with huge white bulbs and long green stems and bunches of fresh garlic that looked like they had just been pulled out of the ground that morning. The smells and colours were intoxicating. We would get a whift of succulent tasajo, thinnly sliced beef steaks, being barbequed on a characoal grill. A massacre of chickens were being roasted on portable rotissarie ovens. We ate at one little eatery where the little tables were packed with people eating and Bryan counted 75 chickens being roasted in the oven. Bright pink watermelon, brillant orange papaya and golden yellow pineapple were being expertly sliced up into fruit cups  sold with a little chili powder to add more zing to the flavour. Some vendors were selling handwoven, heavy woolen blankets and sweaters though in the hot sun, I veered away from their stalls. A brass band was playing in the gazebo in centro, providing a lively beat in the streets around it but quickly faded out as you left the area and back into in the maze of market, under the tarp shade covers and drowned out by the sounds of people buying, selling and chatting. Not as easily drowned out was the periodic BANG! BANG! BANG! of someone shooting off firecrackers leaving a puff of smoke high in the sky over the market. It was hot and we took ourselves on a bit of a pulque tour sampling from  a few different vendors. I also tried tampeche, fermented pinapple juice, which was sweet and earthy but I prefered the lighter pulque. Bryan and I would sit off to the side on little plastic stools or milk crates, sipping cold pulque from our cups made from half a gourd, trying to practice our fledging Spanish with the vendors around us and watching the colourful whirlwind of the market roll by. In the evening, we go for dinner at a local restaurant by the mercado. We eat mole estofado with chicken in a set meal. Mole estofado is a mole, a chili based sauce, made from a variety of ingredients including olives and almonds. The sauce in moles is the focus of the meal rather than the meat and the chicken was swimming in a rich, delicious pool of thick, savory cinnamon and nutty sauce. Afterwards, we had a little time before meeting up with our cycle-homies, Uschi and Dave, so we went down to the zocalo for a walk. If you have nothing to do in Oaxaca city, just walk down to the zocalo because something seems to be always happening there. Tonight, there was a state police brass band playing stately dazon music and people ballroom dancing under the trees. It’s like the opposite of regular job by day and fighting crime by night! These officers were crime fighters moonlighting as musicians! They were pretty talented and it was fun to watch them and the dancers.  Soon, we left to met up with our friends for some delicious hot chocolate and maltedas at the chocolate factory just down the street from our hotel. Yes, we’re staying down the street from the chocolate factory…and we go there at least once, often twice a day! It’s actually a street of chocolate shops, cafes and factories, that is place where they turn cacao beans, cinnamon sticks, almonds and sugar into the decadent chocolate that Oaxaca is known for. Malteda is a drink of iced milk blended up with chocolate powder. Delicious!

Jan 30, 2014 – Big trees, petrified waterfalls and delicious food in and around Oaxaca

Tule is a quiet little town with a gardened centro with palm trees, manicured lawns, a fountain and a gazebo. However, the town is overshadowed by the towering El Tule tree, a Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) that some argue is the oldest tree in the world. It is at least 2,000 years old, with some saying as old as 6,000 years old. If not the oldest, it is certaintly the “stoutest” (aka having the widest girth) tree in the world. The circumference of the trunk is 42.00 metres with a diameter is 14.05 metres. Thirty people are needed with arms extended and hands joined to encircle this ancient giant. The tree, at 40 metres high, dwarfs the church of Santa Maria de La Asuncion beside it.  I think this is an accurate picture if you consider that the tree is at least 2000 years old, it is four times older than Christianity on this continent and was around when Jesus was said to have been born! The tree was already alive and growing when the Roman empire fell and when the Zapotec city of Monte Alban was at its height. The tree was already 1500 years old when Columbus first set foot in the Americas. Growing in the courtyard of the church, the tree continues to be sacred today as it was for the ancient Zapotecs and subsequent Mixtecs. According to Mixtec myth, people orginated from cypress trees. The tree is nicknamed the “Tree of Life” from the shapes of animals you can see in the tree’s gnarled truck.  We saw an antelope/deer and a few faces in the branches though there are apparently also elephants, jaguars and many other animals sighted. A plaque in the front encourages people to gaze at the rough bark and gnarled limbs to see if they can see animals and other shapes, a moment of tranquility under the green leafy branches that hold you under it’s gigantic umbrella as you contemplate life. The next day, we had a cooking class with Chef Augustin (http://www.cookingclassesoaxaca.com.mx/chef.html). We started at 11am and first walked through Benito Juarez market to buy the supplies for our cooking class today. We are cooking everything from scratch and we must have went to half a dozen little stands to get everything we needed from chilies to cheese to garlic to fruits and vegetables and more. We went to a chili vendor where the dried chiles were piled high in wicker baskets and the woman processing them had a face mask and heavy duty rubber gloves on. We needed four types chilies to make the mole negro (chile pasilla mexicano, chili chilhuacle negro, chile mulato and chipolte meco) and two types chilies to make the mole rojo (chile ancho and chile guajillo). Though moles have a lot of different ingredients, at its core, moles are chile based sauces and different types of chiles make the different moles. We walk through the 20 de Noviembre mercado to the chocolate factory, aka our second home, and saw their tasty creations. Both of our moles today use chocolate as  an ingredient. We catch a bus from the chocolate factory all the way to his house, just outside of the centro area. Chef Agustin has a restaurant downstairs and upstairs is his living room and kitchen which he uses as his classroom to teach the classes. He has a big sunny terrace that overlooks the centro. We get started cooking…and drinking. His classes are open bar beer and mezcal. We do four different courses – quesadillas with guacamole and two types of table salsa then mole rojo and mole negro then chicken enchiladas, then two types of chile rellenos with a desert of fried plantains dribbled with crema. It was like four cooking classes combined into one as we would cook a meal together, eat it on his sunny terrace, then start the next round and so on. We started with 45 ingredients to make the bases. There are 30 ingredients to make mole negro and 25 ingredients to make mole rojo! Chef Agustin says that there are 5 core sauces that are the base of Oaxacan cuisine: black mole sauce, red mole sauce, red tomato sauce, green tomato sauce and ground bean sauce. With these five bases, you can cook most of Oaxacan food and we learned how to make four out of the five today. We left Chef Agustin’s house after sunset at around 7pm. We were so full and happy. Today, we jumped into a shared taxi to Mitla about 45km away. There we switched to a shared collectivo pickup truck up another 14 km up the mountain to Hierve el Agua. Bryan and I sat in the covered back of the pickup so we had amazing views of the whole valley unfolding below us. At Hierve el Agua, there are two “waterfalls frozen in time”.  Mineral springs bubble up on top of the mountain and trickle down the cliff. Over thousands of years, the minerals have built up making fantastic stagatite rock “waterfalls” that are still growing as water continues to drip down. At the top are naturally forming rock pools, including this one giant one big enough to swim in. We hiked around the waterfalls going to both the tops and bottom of these incredible formations and went swimming. There are old rock pools where the springs have now dried or changed their path from prehispanic times so people have been coming to this area for thousands of years. It is so beautiful here with turqouise pools the overlook the mountains. A little slice of paradise. Afterwards, I was so relaxed. We got back to Oaxaca after dark and did some last provisioning.  As we were walking home, our state of relaxation turned to just plain tiredness. We decided to stay another day in Oaxaca tomorrow to actually rest before we start our journey. Oh Oaxaca, you are so amazing! We just can’t leave!

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