Riding through Central Mexico has been an unexpected pleasure. I thought of the ride as purely a ride at first, such and such many days riding x number of kilometers to get to Oaxaca, but then I quickly realize that the area has a big heart. Away from the beaches and tourist resorts and away from US-Mexico border areas constantly in the news, Central Mexico doesn’t seem to appear in the news very often. There are some tourists here but they’re mostly located in specific areas like in Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca and not to the concentration like on the coast. Outside of a few cities, the villages, countryside and small cowboy towns seem rarely visited by tourists and rarely featured in global news and tourism.
However, in Mexican history and culture, Central Mexico is the beating heart. I felt like we were riding through history both ancient and about the founding of the nation. We rode in the shadow of the smoking giant volcano of Popocatepetl and the sleeping woman mountain, an Aztec Romeo and Juliet story forever written on the landscape and crossed through numerous territories of different ancient peoples from Aztec to Mixtec to Zapotec. Ancient ruins stood high on top of mountains, a testament to the strength of the people who built them and their devotion to their gods, while age old grand churches stand tall in the middle of villages and towns still in use to this day. On the slopes of Popocateptl, there are the first cathedrals built by the Spanish missions, which became the model for churches in America.
16th century cathedrals built like fortress castles rise unexpectedly out of the rural Oaxacan landscape. In the building of the nation, Zapata’s bones are buried is on a street in Cuautla and children play on the concrete of his masoleum in the evening. Zapata is from a little village nearby Cuautla and the city is one of the first under his influence in the Mexican Revolution. A century earlier, Mexican rebels fighting for independence from Spain, including Morelos, rode on the railway into Cuautla and the Spanish royalist forces layed seige to the town. Katya, our couchsurfing host in Cuautla, lives in a house right by the rail station and she tells us that there are tales of buried treasure from people who died in the seige 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.
The beating heart of the nation is not only found in the historical momuments we pass on this stretch of our ride but also in the generosity, hospitality and friendliness of the people. It has been amazing to ride through the little cowboy towns and villages nestled in the remote hills where people are excited to try to speak Spanish to you, invite you into their homes and into their local parties. Local traditions flourish often blending Catholic events with local ways of celebrating.
Men wear crisp buttoned up shirts with a pair of blue jeans and large cowboy hats are still in style. People 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. As we camped in ranches and in little church yards, the acordian and brass beats of banda music drifted throughout the village merging with the never ending symphony of dogs barking.
The beating heart of the nation is also reflected in our own beating hearts as we cycle up and down seemingly endless hills. 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. It felt remote with dramatic vistas of towering monolithic rock spires and ranges after ranges of mountains. There are cactuses again – tall straight cactuses standing at attention on mountain slopes and cactuses that were a conglomeration of pads as shorter shrubs. It felt a little like the Baja in some of its remoteness though with more mountains, more rivers with water in it and more periodic villages with cold Cokes. We faced a lot of mountains and the inland route to Oaxaca is not the easiest path. As Santiago’s dad, Alejandro told us, there is a mountain range the runs along the western side of mainland Mexico that is the continuation of the Rocky Mountains and there is another mountain range that runs along the eastern side of mainland Mexico. These two mountain ranges seem to converge around Oaxaca. Also, there is a transversal mountain range that cuts across Mexico just below Mexico City. This means that we got to cycle them all on. Sounds fun. Actually, I do enjoy hills. Climbing hills makes things more exciting as going up is accompanied by the eventual going down. Plus, climbing hills for me is a bit like yoga – you’re completely in the moment with your breath and in that moment, you are the master of your own destiny. Only you can get yourself up that hill. Going uphill is a challenge rewarded by stunning views and reaching those hard to reach places. There is a sense of accomplishment reaching the top but for this to happen, I think there is also a sense of respect for Mother Earth who raises tall mountains and creates deep valleys and crevices. You respect the landscape for the challenges it presents and the willpower it helps forge within you.
After long ascents, we were rewarded by wild, thrilling downhills. Perhaps less discussed is the challenge of going downhill. For me, it is kind of terrifying as you go faster and faster down the slope. Your pedals are freewheeling being you are now travelling faster than you cycle. There is a sense of losing control as the landscape whips past you and periodically cars pass. I tend to break a lot because I want to feel more in control but actually, you’re in least control when you’re trying to stop the momentum. On this stretch, I leaned forward and crouched down a bit and just rode out the curves winding down the mountain, feeling actually more in control than before. Also, after hours of ascent, I was very ready and excited for the downhill!
I rode down those hills, hugging curves, testing my own willpower in a very different way and felt one with my bike flying down the hills. The adrenaline courses through my veins and I feel my heart beat for this amazing place.