Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Fleeing Down the Federal Highway

Last time I found myself tripping down pyramids in Tula de Allende. This time I saddle up to get back on the road again—but not if the highway patrol has anything to say about it.

Other cyclists getting a friendly police escort on the toll highway. Photo via Ginger Ninjas.

Wednesday, December 17 (Day 894 of the Great Adventure)—To Sahagun City

Before departing there had to be a photo shoot. Roberto, the friendly hotel owner, didn’t think it was enough to just give me a free breakfast and a free extra night’s stay; now that I was finally going he also wanted my picture for his personal hall of fame. (Ezra had requested the same thing at the Brazilian restaurant. I was starting to feel like a bona fide celebrity.)

For a true Mexican marketing shot there had to be ladies. He recruited two of his female employees and soon they were posed to either side of me, my arms around them. I don’t envy them: I had just slipped into my bicycling shirt with all the pit stains and B.O. that implies. If they caught a whiff, however, they didn’t show it. After the last photo Roberto and I shook hands and I mounted up. I raised my fist in a final salute and whooshed off from the Cuellar for the last time.

Straightaway I turned against traffic on the main one-way road, plowing past vehicles and singing Vodou songs as I went. The policía noticed me but didn’t care: like posing with adoring women, breaking traffic rules is simply part of the Mexican way.

Gate Crashin’

Thanks to my trip to the pyramids, I knew that the way ahead included a giant hill—basically climbing out of the river gorge the downtown is in—and I didn’t even try to bike it. Pushing the giant up the slope added a fresh layer of sweat to my bike shirt, but once at the top I figured it’d be smooth sailing. (This was also when I saw the Mastur-Bar.)

Smooth sailing it was not. Not far out of town I turned to get back on the Arco Norte, the cuota (federal toll road) that would take me east out of the highlands. You may recall that when I arrived in Tula, the guard at the toll gate made a show of waving me through (and that I was a touch ungrateful). Apparently they put all the nice guys on the night shift, however, because the cabrón at the gate was not there to welcome me.

“Buenos dias,” I called as I moved to bike around him.

“(Bunch of stuff in Spanish!)” he said. He waved for me to pull over. Aw hell.

He explained to me that bikes aren’t allowed on the toll road, a fact of which I was well aware—though this is rarely enforced. I pretended I didn’t understand; sometimes that helps.

Not this time.

He repeated his point with detestable patience.

I adopted a mournful look. “But… I need to get to Tepeapulco.”

This was the pragmatic approach. Tepeapulco is a day’s ride away, with no other roads heading there besides the cuota. Perhaps if it seemed like the only way—

“Too bad,” he said. “You’ll have to apply for permission.”


“Head over to the main office and request permission. If you get a pass, you can use the cuota.”

Oh shit. This was worse than being turned away. Worse than being arrested. He was using bureaucracy.

I considered my options: try to bribe him, or look for another way. I got the sense that he was just the sort of jerk who wouldn’t accept a bribe. He was doing things by the book. No, this is the kind of guy who wears tighty whiteys.

Another plan took form, however. “Where’s the office?” I asked.

He pointed across the freeway. Basically, the situation was this:

Biking on Cuota Problem

I thanked him and turned the bike around, never directly saying I’d head to the office. I had no intention of doing so. If you understand how Mexican bureaucracy works, you know I have a better chance of being elected presidente than getting approved for a cuota pass. Even if I did get approved—which would hinge entirely on some official taking a shine to me—I’d be there for hours. More likely it’d be a waste of a whole day.

Under the overpass I went. The office and its turnoff loomed on my left. I passed them both. A glance over my shoulder confirmed it: I was now out of view of the toll goat.

And here, on the other side of the freeway, was the other on-ramp.

I went up the ramp and slowed my pace. There was, of course, another toll gate. I had no idea if the various gate guards were in radio contact, or if a rogue bicyclist was the kind of thing they’d report to one another. But I wasn’t taking chances. This time, I needed subterfuge.

It didn’t take long. A semi chugged up the ramp behind me. As soon as he passed I fell in behind him, veering over on his left side away from the gatehouse. He slowed for the toll and I had no trouble keeping up.

Thus hidden on the blind side of the truck, the gate agents never saw me coming. But they sure would see me crossing. As the semi braked, I hit the pedals with all the muscles the mountains had given me. Third gear… fourth gear… get those sinews firing.

Vrap-ap-ap-ap! I hit the first vibration strip approaching the gate house. The semi stopped. Vrap-ap-ap-ap! A water bottle leapt out of the front basket. Intimate parts of me begged for mercy.

Head down, eyes forward, crank those legs. And… whoosh! I popped out from beside the semi, cannonballing the gate.

In my peripheral I saw the person inside the gatehouse. They didn’t immediately charge out at me, and I didn’t acknowledge them in any way. Somebody yelled something. It might have been an angry halt! or a friendly adios! or just whoa! in surprise. I told myself there was no way a gate guard was gonna come running after a cyclist, and plunged forward.

I swerved around the gate arm and careened past. Never even slowed. Then I was through and up the on-ramp I chugged. There was no more yelling (and no gunshots), but I kept cranking those pedals like the devil was on me.

One problem: I needed to go east, and this onramp was for westbound traffic. At the top I sliced left. Soon I was barreling down the freeway shoulder… going the wrong way.

Wrong-way cycling isn’t unusual. Some readers have suggested it’s actually safer, and most of the Mexican cyclists I pass seem to agree. But it was my first time, and seeing that first 75 mph semi coming at me was a thrill.

Of course, now that I was up on the freeway there was a chance the original cabrón would spot me as I passed his on-ramp. But I figured, (a) there was a lot of stuff between us, (b) he was probably looking the other way, at traffic pulling into his gate, and (c) bite me.

Basically I’d pulled one of these numbers:

Biking on Cuota Solution

I kept up the speed for the first half mile or so. No squad of motorcycle cops appeared in my mirror. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked to the road ahead.

Traffic was light, and after a couple miles I crossed to the grassy median, then over to the proper side where I normally ride. I was pretty pleased to have crashed the gate, but there was no guarantee I was in the clear. If the guards really cared they could call the policía. It could be 20 minutes or three hours before they picked me up; I wasn’t hard to miss.

But there was nothing for it. I had rogued my way onto this freeway and if need be I’d just rogue my way off of it.

[André’s note: I don’t field the slightest bit bad about this maneuver, and will try to explain a little more of how road rules work in Mexico in a future post.]

The scenery was pleasant. It seemed flat to me, even though it was hilly terrain that passed over occasional mountain ridges. It was certainly nothing compared to the 9,000 foot monster I’d struggled over previously.

A couple hours later there was an exit/entrance with a gatehouse. I wasn’t exiting, so I didn’t need to go through. But as I went past one of the  guards turned toward me.

I did what I always do with authority figures in Mexico, which is say hi and act friendly. I threw him a wave and a buenas tardes, hoping to cruise past. But that wasn’t enough. He waved for me to stop.

My Spanish had come a long way, but there are a lot of accents and dialects in Mexico. I had a hard time understanding this guy. Whatever the first thing was that he said, I legitimately didn’t understand it. He pointed at the freeway and repeated it, saying something about safety. So, maybe: you can’t ride out there, it isn’t safe?

I begged to differ. “No, it’s very safe,” I insisted. “There’s a big shoulder.”

He then said something about the gate and exit beside him. Perhaps telling me to exit and get the heck off this freeway. I asked him to repeat this too. He did, but simply said something else about my safety.

He didn’t seem angry and wasn’t giving me an order. I decided to thank him for being concerned about my safety. This seemed to satisfy him. I thanked him again, waved and got on the bike.

He didn’t move to stop me.

So, more confused than ever, I bicycled away. The gate guard watched me go.

This whole thing is still a mystery to me. I suppose the most likely story is he got a call over the radio about a bicyclist on the freeway and he figured he’d give me a little lecture. But this is so strange. For one thing, no one ever cared before when I biked on the cuotas—I’d stopped and talked with police on them. And if he got a call about me, you’d think he’d detain me or order me off. My main takeaway from the whole affair was a fleeting nostalgia for the “good old days” in the border zone where my only worry was being murdered.

Hotels By the Hour

My destination for the night was either Sahagun City or Tepeapulco, depending on which map you consulted. They’re actually two small cities that smashed together as they grew. Sahagun City was slightly closer, and after 60 miles I figured that was the best choice.

What’s interesting is that it’s called Sahagun City on all the maps, with the English word city. I’m not sure if this is a translation issue (like how we translate Mexico City) or has a historical reason. But I’ve only once seen it called Ciudad Sahagún.

The exit for Sahagun City didn’t look like an exit at all. It was rolling green and gold land all around, with no signs of a city. Mountains hemmed the highway on both sides, and from my phone it looked like Sahagun must lie beyond them. The valley itself was completely abandoned.

But there was a gate house at the exit, of course. This time I neither greeted nor waved, just barreled through. I did get a glimpse of some surprised looking gate guards but they didn’t come out of the booth. I was back on free roads again—where bicycles are as welcome as the tourist dollars they bear—and headed toward the invisible city.

That last jaunt in the countryside was pleasant. It reminded me of rural Wisconsin (except not flat). Soon it became industrial, however; turns out Sahagun City is built on gravel pits, fabrication plants and other large industry. As the green-gold disappeared behind me, clouds of dust and diesel exhaust hemmed in.

The place didn’t look too happy. The ride in showed a lot of unhappy faces coming to or from a lot of low paying jobs. I followed the signs for a hotel, located on a side street of gated condos. While more upscale, this didn’t make me feel any more at home, and neither did the hotel prices: $1,300 pesos a night, three to four times what I normally pay. I laughed when the woman told me the number, and she smiled good naturedly—not a hint of disdain for this filthy bicyclist before her. I really appreciated that.

The search continued. I went through a truly depressing park and finally found a street with food stalls, shops and foot and car traffic. It also had two hotels. At the first, I rolled the Giant into the parking garage (completely empty except for a couple old box springs), timing my entrance carefully between the bottle rockets local kids were shooting into it. In the lobby, I found a 16 year old girl behind a plate glass window.

“Can I see a room?” I asked.

“No,” she said.


After some back and forth I understood the reason. She was the only one there. I can’t fault her for not going upstairs with a man she doesn’t know, though it seems like bad hotel policy. I kept my money and walked back out the door (and back out of the parking garage, still under barrage.)

The next hotel was more promising, situated right next to a pleasant pedestrians-only alley with a restaurant and shops. But the door, semi-hidden, was crowned with a big sign:

Special! $100/hour

I left.

At this point the sun was setting. I was hungry and tired. I turned onto another major street, starting to wonder if I’d need to go up the hill to Tepeapulco after all.

That’s when I passed a hotel named Tulipanes (Tulips) painted in bright, pretty colors. I nearly screeched to a halt and did a U-turn to dive into its parking area.

Neither the parking area nor the stairway up into the building were much to look at. Inside, there was no lobby; the owner’s office was in one of the hotel rooms, and he led me up to the third floor to show me a room.

“It’s only you?” he asked.

“Just me.”

“I only have rooms with two beds.”

“Is the price the same?”

“Yes, but you have to promise to only use one bed.”


“I promise,” I said.

He showed me to a very clean room with a brand new bathroom and big, sunny windows. It was perfect.

“I’ll take it.”

“Okay, but it’s not available until 7:00.”

I thought I didn’t hear him right, but he repeated himself.

I looked around.

“Why not?”

“Someone else has it rented but it will be available in a few hours.”

I looked around the spotless, uninhabited room. “But there are no suitcases,” I said. I felt like I was being conned.

He could sense my frustration and reassured me. “Don’t worry, I have a different room.”

“And it’s available now?”


I mentally translated Well why didn’t you show me that one first? but let it pass. The other room was similar, spotless and new, a little less sunny. “I’ll take it.”

We went through a seemingly interminable process in his office/bedroom until, eventually, I had the key. I brought my bags up, but not the Giant (third floor, remember?) which I locked to a cement mixer in the parking area. The manager returned to my door several times with more information for me (the water heater is new, here’s the remote for your TV, etc.). At first I thought he was looking over my shoulder but, in retrospect, I think he was nervous about whether or not I would like the place. It was obviously a fairly new hotel.

And I made full use of that fairly new shower. I kept thinking about how he said to use just one bed: was he going to double up a second guest in my room? Putting the thought out of my mind, I went out for a dinner of pozole, picked up some water and hurried back. The freezing highland night had set in.

Exhausted, I snuggled under the covers and read till I fell asleep. Rocky first impression notwithstanding, the Tulipanes kept me warm and I slept with joy.

63.2 miles


Total traveled this leg: 63.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 3847.6

Next time I make an unplanned stop at one of Mexico’s “Magic Cities.” Until then you can check out all my road logs.

Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Last Mark of the Toltec Empire

Last time I went over a 9,000 foot mountain to reach the city of Tula de Allende. Now it’s time to rest and explore the city—and its ancient pyramids.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

December 13-16 (Days 890-893 of the Great Adventure)—Tula Days

Tula still felt “different” from other cities in Mexico. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was one of the nicest centros of any city I’d been to, with the main square surrounded entirely by walking malls. But that wasn’t it.

I pondered as I wandered around looking for a lunch spot. The city reminded me a lot of Thailand. But why? What gave me the same vibe in both places?

At the end of one walking mall was a torta shop (sandwich shop) that I knew I had to go into. It was on the second floor, with a tiny street level door and no advertising, yet the balcony had plenty of customers. Local secret? I squeezed in under their only sign: “Suba Ud.” Come upstairs, please.

Their Cuban sandwich didn’t disappoint, except that it was twice the size of my head and way too much to eat alone. The view from the balcony, once I managed to snag a table there, wasn’t bad either. And it was there that I realized what made Tula so different from other Mexican towns.

Everything was new.

I mean, not new new. It definitely had its share of run-down buildings. But none looked older than the 1960s, and many more recent than that. Concrete and steel buildings rose from wide, well paved streets with real sidewalks. They weren’t skyscrapers, and rarely even high rises, but they were markedly different from the colonial or plaster structures dominating most Mexico downtowns.

(And that was a big part of why it seemed so Chiang Mai-esque to me, along with the weather we were experiencing that week.)

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

Despite its size and modernity there was relatively little to do. I found two cafes worth visiting, one of without wifi and the other rarely open. Oddly, I could never pick up a Telcel signal in the centro proper, as if the whole area was jammed by the Soviets. As a result I had to work mainly at the hotel or, one afternoon, at a second story bar with dubstep music and its own wifi. In the evenings only a few sit-down restaurants were open. Maybe it was just the adjustment from San Miguel, where there was so much to do and I had friends to talk to, but I found myself feeling lonely and uncomfortable.

I went back to the Brazilian restaurant twice during my stay. Once to try out their breakfast menu, which was good, and once to experience the famed grilled meat parade. Ezra was excited for me to try it, and served me personally. He brought over sword after sword of flame-touched meats: salted beef, tender filet, succulent pork loin, chistorra, and a dozen others each more delicious than the last. Each of these is fire-roasted on the sword just seconds before serving and sliced paper-thin onto your plate. In between rounds he brought over skewers of roasted pineapple.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

I’ve only experienced this kind of Brazilian grill once before, and I have to say Ezra’s was better. Maybe it was just that I knew how to pace myself better, or maybe it was that he didn’t try to fill me up on starters first. But at the end of the meal, instead of slow and heavy, I felt satisfied and mildly euphoric. Thanks, Ezra.

(Incidentally, the restaurant also served a great sopa Azteca. It’s a uniquely Mexican dish that involves a creamy red soup with bits of meat, ropes of melted white cheese, and freshly fried tortilla strips in it, plus fresh avocado. Ironically, this non-Aztec couple made the best Aztec soup I’ve ever had. I would go back for that alone.)

Meanwhile, the owner of the Hotel Cuellar, Roberto, also made my stay more memorable. He was really interested in my bike ride, even more so after I told him I’m a writer. I’ve become well versed at explaining in Spanish what Lúnasa Days is about, but I always apologize because it’s only available in English (yet). That didn’t phase him. His English is about as good as my Spanish, and he asked if I would autograph a copy if he ordered it. I agreed, although we both knew it wouldn’t arrive in time for me to do so.

My second evening there he told me that I was getting free breakfast the next day. I was a bit wowed and thanked him warmly. After the exchange, though, I wondered if I’d understood correctly. Maybe I was getting too cocky in my Spanish skills? But sure enough, the next morning at the hotel cafe the doña who runs the kitchen came out and showed me the menu for their “desayuno ejecutivo” (executive breakfast) and told me there’d be no charge.

The third day was pyramid day. It’s funny… I’ve gone to such great lengths to see all these ancient sites. Yet on that day all I really wanted to do was hang out in the hotel room and read. Just get some R&R. I would’ve been perfectly to miss out on one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the Americas, the former capital of the Toltec empire.

But what kind of Adventure would that be? I set down the book and hopped on the Giant. You can take a city bus to the pyramids, but I liked the idea of cycling across town. The Tula Archaeological Site is located just a few kilometers from the current city center, surrounded by neighborhoods on two sides. After confirming directions I set off.

The route crossed the river and immediately went up a giant hill, the opposite side of the gorge I’d descended a few days before. Barely able to breathe at the top, I made a mental note not to try pedaling up it when the Giant was fully loaded with gear.

After that the ride was easy. 10 minutes later I coasted into the Tula National Park, home of the Archaeological Site. It had a landscaped entry and vast parking areas, all almost empty. Maybe it was because it was a Monday, but Mexico’s archaeological museums always seem drastically under-attended to me.

As I wondered where to chain up the bike, a security guard suggested I walk it right up to the front door of the museum and lock it to a tree. That done, I paid my entrance and spotted a sign near the entrance. It kindly informed me that I could report any complaints “or insults” by phone, mail, email or in person. I wondered how many insults I should expect.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

The Tula archaeological site consists of three main areas: first the indoor museum, with replicas of many of the artifacts and the usual informational panels. Then a long outdoor walk from the museum to the pyramids themselves. (I suppose they couldn’t break ground for the museum building too close to the archaeological site). Finally, the remains of ancient Tula’s downtown, which have been painstakingly unearthed by archaeologists.

I wasn’t too interested in the museum, not because I dislike them (I love them) but because I was eager to see the real deal. But I’m glad I walked through. I got a lot of interesting background information on the culture and the art that I’d see. And the three dimensional model of the site would help me orient myself once I got out there.

The walk out was surreal. Sometime I think Mexican museums have self esteem issues. I’m not sure they believe people will really come just to see pyramids and amazing artifacts. There’s always some kind of side attraction, a sort of “AND you get to see…” to sweeten the deal. In Tula’s case it’s this desert version of a hedge maze. White rocks and cacti sprawl along winding, tangled pathways. I stuck to the outside, skirting past the labyrinth and heading for the Toltec ruins.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

I wasn’t there yet, though. The path is a zig-zag, making right angle turns that nearly double your walking time. This has two effects: you can’t directly see the pyramids until you turn the final corner (kind of cool), and you’re forced to walk through repeated encampments of vendors hawking their wares (moan). I assured row after row of peddlers that I needed neither a jaguar statue, nor a traditional flute, nor even a handmade rosary. Ironically, if any of them had just offered me a bottle of ice cold water I would’ve thrown pesos at them.

(I actually had water with me—I have learned a couple of tricks on this Adventure—but this is a hike through a shadeless desert. I mean come on.)

Finally I reached the pyramids themselves. My first view was from the end of the trail, with the main pyramid framed perfectly by a lone shade tree and a little bench at the trail head (image at top). Fluffy clouds filtered the desert sun and the whole place looked serene and magical. I was happy I’d come.

To one side was the remains of the ball court. I think we all know about the Mesoamerican soccer-like game where the losing team was sacrificed, so I won’t go into that. What struck me was how profoundly practical the structure was. It wasn’t that different from a stadium today, and was optimized for handling a giant amount of people. I could picture a family tripping up the stairs with kids in tow, trying to pull the niños away from vendors at the entrance (probably selling jaguar statues). The fact that lives hung in the balance was as prosaic as an NFL player pulling a hamstring.

Next I went to the main pyramid, dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The trail approached from the rear. On the far side was the central plaza of ancient Tula, surrounded by the remains of dozens of public buildings. There was nothing I wanted to do more than run up to the top of that pyramid, but I took my time, wandering around the back first and looking at the carvings in the reconstructed perimeter wall. I was glad I did—these are things I wouldn’t have taken the time for after I’d already been to the top, and they were stunning.

Finally I made my way around front. Hundreds of white columns rose from the ruins of an old palace to my right, but I focused on the pyramid. A few other groups of visitors milled about, some on top, some around the bottom and one pair coming down. I sized up the steps and began the ascent.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

I remember that when I climbed the steps of Chichén Itzá I was terribly winded. But I was in worse shape back then, and I took this pyramid with ease. Even so, coming up eye level with the top was a powerful experience, one that made you feel as if suddenly you couldn’t go on.

I found myself looking up at the Atlantes, the 12-foot tall stone warriors that hold watch over the temple’s top. I placed my hand over my heard in a discreet salute and stepped up.

The Atlantes. Photo by André

The Atlantes. Photo by André

It’s hard to write about standing atop the pyramid. It’s like this is where I’m supposed to say something deep, because I’m looking for the gods, right? But I feel like I said everything I had to say in the video log I sent my supporters. The truth is I felt conflicted. It’s this spiritual place, but it’s also a museum. I was surrounded by other tourists each having their own experiences. The top of the pyramid seemed to be a concrete slab, which made me wonder how it had been reconstructed and whether the Atlantes were even in the right places. I think the most profound spiritual experiences happen in places of solitude; and this temple is now a place of learning and selfies, not so much a place of prayer.

But there was an undeniable majesty looking out over the old city forum, vaster than some towns itself and now completely empty; the palaces and temples and the other pyramid, in worse condition, not far off from this one. All of it haunted by the specter of the sacrifices that once took place there. How can you look down from that spot, picture the city as it once was, and not imagine the knife coming down?

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

(If you want to see this place for yourself, supporters get full access to the video log I made.)

As I stood contemplating this a young Colombian couple asked if I’d take their picture. We conversed in Spanish (I’m on a roll!) but they seemed eager to be off. I watched them make their descent on the giant stone steps.

The sound of a flute drifted over the site, played by an enterprising vendor who’d eschewed the merch stalls to wander with his wares. It was right to hear that plaintive trill over this empty place. And it was time to make my offering.

I accepted that other tourists would watch me do this, including a group led by someone with the air of an anthropologist. But they kept a respectful distance, and the incense lit easily. I  tucked it into a crack at the top of the steps, in view of the Atlantes.

Oh, Quetzalcoatl, I prayed:

This incense comes not from me, but from my friend Sky and from Guadalupe, whom you know by another name. Today is her holy day, and she sent this for you. I hope the scent will please you.

The smoke curled up to the sky and the flute broke the silence. Does Quetzalcoatl miss the taste of human sacrifice? Or was it something he never wanted in the first place?

I descended. On the way out I took off-road footpaths used by the vendors (they sure weren’t walking at right angles after a long shift). This saved time and evaded most of the sales pitches. After the final jaunt across the labyrinth it was back to the museum, the Giant, and the road home.

When I got there the hotel owner had another present for me. “Are you staying another day tomorrow?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I admitted. I didn’t really feel like moving on just yet, but this was my last planned day in Tula. “I was thinking of leaving in the morning.”

He nodded. “Well if you decide to stay, I’d like to give you a night for free.”

That took me back. This time I confirmed that I’d understood correctly. It seemed like too much: a free breakfast is one thing, but comping me $500 pesos (really $600) is big. I wondered what the catch could be. But in a situation like this, all I have to go on is my sense of people, and my sense of Roberto is that he’s a friendly, kind person. I felt humbled by the offer and gratefully accepted.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

That extra day allowed me to work ahead on client projects and explore the town some more. Discoveries included rope bridges crossing the river in the center of town (not decorative or for play—these were functional rope bridges used as pedestrian thoroughfares). They anchored to a cute neighborhood on one side and a sort of mini park on the other, and helped connect the two halves of town. Unfortunately, the river smelled like an open sewer and I didn’t spend much time in the park.

Tula marked a turning point in my Adventure. It was the first time ever that I’ve had good enough Spanish to make friends and be social without the “in” of a local acquaintance or a language school. Even though I’d felt lonely and isolated when I showed up, I managed to experience moments of warmth with people I’d never met before and will likely never see again. For that, I’m grateful.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Next time, I leave Tula and get back on the highway—but I have to crash a gate to do it. Until then, check out my other road logs.

Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, Spanish, The Great Adventure, Travel

Bringing Gifts for Guadalupe

Last time I got cozy with my Mexican host family and received some amazing kindness in San Miguel de Allende (plus picked up a nasty cough). This time I leave the shelter of the Expat City and get back on the road.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. Photo by André.

Nativity scene at the Tula parish church. I adore that it’s a hangar made of old tarps. Photo by André.

Thursday, December 11 (Day 888 of the Great Adventure)—to San Juan del Río

My departure from San Miguel de Allende began with cobble streets so steep I had to get off and walk the bike. I had become settled in San Miguel, with its many cafes and conveniences, and yet unsettled at the same time. I didn’t feel at home with the colonization vibe of my fellow Anglo-Americans—or how they reflected on me. And yet I knew there was a good chance I’d be back; renting a room from Fay for a month or two sounds appealing, and the Spanish language school was just that good.

Eventually I made it up to the high road out of town. The first section of highway wasn’t as steep as I expected, but it ran through lesser mountain ranges that were anything but small.

I started to suffer pretty badly. In San Miguel I had thought seriously about getting rid of some of my equipment—it’s too much weight on the bike. I hadn’t camped once yet on the Mexico trip, and losing that gear would be a blessing. It would also involve the dubious process of trying to mail it somewhere, an endeavor that all my friends, local and ex-pat alike, warn me is a gamble. Packages have a habit of disappearing in the Mexican post office, particularly things that look valuable.

Ultimately I kept the gear, more for the assurance of being able to camp than out of fear of mail sorters. I had been lucky finding hotels so far, but some nights had been close calls and I liked the security of being able to sleep anywhere.

But that extra weight really added up in the mountains out of San Miguel. I could feel the strain in my knees now, and with my lingering chest cold sometimes had coughing fits on the uphills. It was a rough day.

So when I finally reached San Juan del Río, my destination for the night, I was more than ready to quit. The town is build along a river. That means that entering town is a downhill, but going across town is uphill again–going down one river bank and up the other. I didn’t even try to bike in; as soon as I got off the highway I spotted a corporate looking hotel and got a room. It was a bit pricier than I was used to, but nice.

After a shower it was almost sunset. I was hungry, and I generally avoid hotel restaurants. I saddled up the Giant once again, this time without all his heavy gear on him, and rode into town.

The way couldn’t have been flatter. After crossing an old stone bridge I was on a main road toward the Centro. I quickly ran into a variety of roadblocks: backed up traffic, a traffic cop turning away cars, and then balloons, crowds of children and families.

It was December 11, the eve of the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. I knew this holiday would be a big deal but didn’t realize there’d be a parade the night before.

I biked floats and bands getting ready for the march, as far as the Parroquia (parish church), the parade’s destination. I spotted two eateries along the route, one directly across from the other, and decided to check them out.

The first one had a convenient wrought iron fence around the patio tables, the perfect place to lock my bike. But inside it turned out to be more a bar than a restaurant. A too-friendly drunk greeted me warmly and went for an abrazo that I deftly dodged. Stumbling between English and Spanish, he told me he was buying me a drink.

I exchanged looks with the bartender and said I needed to eat before I could drink. I didn’t exactly promise to come back after, but the drunkard took it that way and stopped protesting. I checked out.

Across the street was a taquería that smelled divine. They didn’t have a bar, thankfully, but they had a giant grill and a big selection of alambres. I sat down and ordered some ludicrous combination of grilled meats and veggies. My table was positioned at the open end of the restaurant, directly facing the parade route (and my bike).

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Scene from the parade prep. Photo by André.

Mexican parades come in many shapes and flavors, but they have some common elements. There’s always people chasing other people with bull-whips, and cracking the whips loudly on the ground. There’s a contingent of dancers in full Aztec regalia (or other indigenous style). There are religious floats put together from colored paper in careful and incredible detail. And there people in what seem like totally random costumes: a devil, a Bart Simpson, a Batman.

All of this and more was present in Guadalupe’s parade. I have to admit that the marching phalanxes of kids were pretty cool, and some of them had great music going. I caught some of the Aztec dancers on video, which you can see by becoming a supporter. (Also in the videos: I catch the taco stand waiter dancing like an Egyptian.)

The parade ended not long after dark. I retrieved my bike without running into my drunk friend and crossed the bridge back to the hotel—a bit hairier of a run in the dark with post-parade traffic. The hotel offered wi-fi only in the lobby, not in the rooms, so I took a seat on a couch to work on my computer and ordered a chocolate malt. It’s good for the concentration. 63.7 miles.


Note: The route leaving San Miguel de Allende isn’t quite right due to one-ways. I knocked 0.1 miles off the listed mileage to compensate.

Tula's centro. Photo by André.

Tula’s centro. Photo by André.

Friday, December 12 (Day 889 of the Great Adventure)—to Tula de Allende

Morning came all too soon. I ordered breakfast from the hotel room service, wanting to get on the road with minimal delay. What arrived was a heaping dish of soggy, lukewarm chilaquiles. I’d feel vaguely queasy for much of the day.

The route was difficult. I headed back toward the same stone bridge as before but, instead of crossing it, turned onto a cross street toward the highway out of town. That highway was nothing but miles and miles of endless uphill, so steep I kept stopping just to breathe. Add in a headwind and sections of freeway with no shoulder and it was an inauspicious start to the day.

It was also slow going. It took about two hours just to get out of the San Juan metro area, simply from the conditions. Once free the scenery got better but the road didn’t change much. The next 35 miles of my ride were all uphill, crossing a mountain range and ascending to a height of 9,000 feet. That’s nine thousand.

To be fair, I wasn’t starting out from a height of zero. More like 5,000 feet. But climbing to 9k is still a ton and this was the highest elevation I’d ever achieved by bike. To put it in perspective, I announced I was starting this 35 mile section on Twitter at 11:15 am and tweeted from the top at 4:24 pm. That’s an average of seven grueling miles per hour with, as I recall, no real breaks.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

I was wrong about the 24 miles.

At the summit and I took a brief pause for water, panting and admiring the view below. As I started to roll downhill, I saw a sign:


Covered with sweat and hardly able to breathe, I raised my hand and gave the sign a one-finger salute. I couldn’t get a picture of this, obviously, but I sure hope a few Mexicans in passing cars saw the gesture and got a good laugh.

Soon the wind was rushing past my face and I needed both hands on the steed. A plummeting bicycle is an amazing piece of equipment. A twitch of the hips is enough to change direction; at speed you’re just the fin on the missile.

Those downhill miles went by quickly but, alas, it wouldn’t be all bullet time. To reach Tula de Allende I needed to turn off onto a cuota, a toll road. That road ran through a series of miniature mountains, effectively the foothills of the range I’d just crossed, and my progress ground to a crawl once again. By this time the sun was setting and I felt pretty done for the day, with miles still to go.

I crossed a series of three yawning gorges, each seemingly a mile deep below me. My eyes flickered between the road ahead, the traffic behind me and the view under my feet.

Between gorges and curves I saw the lights of Tula in the distance. Or so I thought. It was actually the city’s massive oil refinery: a glittering forest of tower lights reminiscent of the Emerald City.

At dusk I reached the toll road turn-off. It looked totally deserted. I made my assault on the gate, hoping to swerve right around it, but a uniformed man ran out and waved his arms. Weary, I braked.

“Buenas tardes,” I called. I figured he was going to hassle me about biking on the cuota, or tell me I couldn’t go through. But he was in a good mood—in fact he seemed excited to see a cyclist. He warmly offered for me to swerve around the gate (as I was going to do anyway). I appreciated his attitude, but was so tired I kind of wished he just stayed in the booth—I gave up all my speed to talk to him.

Entering town involved an incredibly steep descent into a gorge. I thought I was going to pitch right over my handlebars. At the bottom I crossed two bridges and rolled into the Centro.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Tula immediately felt different from other Mexican towns. At the moment I was too beat to figure out why. I aimed for one of the hotels I saw on Google, the Hotel Cuellar. It was right across from the parroquia in the heart of the Centro. It was already dark when I rolled into its long, narrow entrance.

Though weary I had to go through the formalities. This includes finding out the price, looking at the room, checking for bed bugs and making sure there’s wi-fi. In this case, the process stopped at the price.

“How much is a habitation for one person?” I asked.

“$600,” replied the owner.

I raised my eyebrows. “$600?”

That’s about US $50, more than I usually pay ($350 is a common rate). I didn’t really want to go somewhere else—but I also had a budget. And I knew there were three more hotels within a few blocks.

The owner looked me up and down. He had seen me come in on the bike. “For you,” he said. “I can offer $500.”

Deal. I thanked him, checked the room and quickly concluded our transaction. He asked me about my travels. To my surprise, I found I could follow the conversation and give good answers. The Spanish classes appeared to be working.

Soon I was upstairs and showering, but without my bike. Usually I take the Giant into my hotel room with me, but here there were a lot of stairs. I chained up the bike outside—to a palm tree.

This wasn’t quite the end of the day’s adventure, however. I still had two objectives:

  • Offer incense to Guadalupe. It was her day, after all.
  • Eat eat eat eat eat

First to the church. The parroquia, a former monastery, occupied high ground in the middle of town and was surrounded with a fortified stone wall. I ascended through its portcullis expecting a giant Guadalupe shrine. There wasn’t one; just a nativity scene, food vendors, and a jam packed church. I decided to keep exploring.

Waking around downtown yielded no shrines but plenty of restaurants. Twice I walked past a sign pointing down an alley:

Espadas de Brasil 

“Swords of Brazil.” I wasn’t in the mood for a meat-heavy dinner at the moment, but I got a good feeling about the place. I turned down the alley…

…and was blown away. The restaurant had two parts: a cozy inside dining room with a bar, and a large outside courtyard with soft music playing. It was chilly so I chose the inside. And the menu offered much more than just grilled meats. Soon I had a huge platter in front of me.

When I finished eating I caught up on some reading on my iPhone, as one does. The owner approached me. We started to chit-chat in Spanish, which is always hell. I just get lost so easily or don’t know enough words and…

…and this time it was different.

As the conversation went on I relaxed. I understood almost everything he said. Occasionally he threw out some words in English to help me, but we basically stuck to Spanish. For ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty. It became the longest Spanish conversation I’d had with someone who wasn’t paid to help me.

And I liked him. Ezra was from Brasil and running this restaurant was his dream. Previously he had been a chef at Fogo de Chão, a Brazilian chain famous enough that I knew of it (but had never eaten at one). He also introduced his wife, Kayla. She didn’t speak much Spanish so she would shyly murmur in Portuguese and he translated. All told we talked a half hour or more.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

Kayla, Ezra and me.

He asked me the purpose of my bicycle trip. I smiled. “It’s sort of a spiritual quest,” I said, using the English phrase spiritual quest. Then in Spanish: “I hope to meet the gods.”

He pointed at his heart.

“The gods within?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know if the gods are inside us only, or if they are also in the world. I want to find out.”

He seemed to understand. After a bit more conversation, he mentioned that there was an old Aztec statue in his courtyard.

“It’s a goddess,” he said. He tilted his head. “What’s the English word for goddess?”

I told him. He nodded, and went on.

“It’s very old. This building is ancient and old the statue has been here for hundreds of years. Do you want to see?”

I agreed and the three of us walked into the courtyard. At the far end was a statue of a goddess I’d seen before. If my knowledge of Mexican mythology is accurate, she’s the exact one that Guadalupe is believed to be based on. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Ezra,” I said. “I’d like to make an offering to her for you. is that alright?”

He agreed.

I took out the incense. In my heart, Guadalupe told me to offer only one stick, not two as I’d planned; save the other one for the pyramid. I lit the incense and placed it in the earth before the goddess, praying over it.

Ezra and Kayla had a movie projector set up in the courtyard. It was past closing time and they were getting ready for a movie night together. We said farewell and I promised I would come back during my next few days in Tula.

I wandered a bit more then made my way back to the Cuellar for some sleep. 59.6 miles. 


Total traveled this leg: 123.3

Total traveled since Day 1: 3784.4 miles

Next time you’ll get to see Tula’s famous pyramids—and we’ll fine out why this town feels so different. Until then, more road logs are available here.

Bicycling, Mexico, Spotlight, Travel

Thank You Bici Burro

Me at Bici Burro. Viva la bicicleta!

Me at Bici Burro. Viva la bicicleta!

Last time I covered my week in San Miguel de Allende: beautiful buildings, an incredible homestay family, and the most formal Spanish training I’ve ever had. But before I move on to the next leg of the journey, I wanted to take a moment to call out a particularly amazing act of kindness.

As ongoing readers know, my bicycle had suffered some unfortunate problems earlier in the Adventure. I’d fixed some of them, but the back wheel still wasn’t true and had a dangerous wobble. I wasn’t going to leave San Miguel without fixing it.

Enter Alberto Martínez, aka Beto. Beto is the owner of Bici Burro, a combination bicycle repair shop/tour company. Bici Burro literally means “Bike Mule” which sounds a lot better in Spanish. I’ve met several people who’ve taken his tours, tough but breathtaking jaunts on mountain bikes into the surrounding villages, often on cobblestone streets.

One of these, a traveler friend, had recommended I meet Beto when I reach San Miguel. Naturally, he came to mind after my near-breakdown in the desert. I found Beto’s his website and emailed him in Spanish; he replied in English. I was hoping he might have a replacement tire for me—I still wasn’t sure if the damaged one was any good—and sadly he did not. But he offered suggestions and put up with my repeated questions, and I could tell he was a real professional.

So once I reached San Miguel I made it a point to visit the Burro and ask him for a tune up. I figured he could true the wheel, diagnose any deeper causes of the wobble, and make the needed repairs.

I showed up one afternoon during comida, the late-afternoon meal break. Some shops close during this period and I was dismayed to see the door of Bici Burro shut tight. Timidly, I knocked on its ancient timbers.

I didn’t realize at first that the man who opened the door was Beto, nor did he realize I was the guy who’d emailed him about 28 times. But he looked over the bike while I struggled to figure out a phrase that might mean “tune-up”. He got the idea and offered the word revista (“a review”). He was happy to help. He told me to come back the next day—just not during comida.

I respected the horario and returned during non-meal hours. Sure enough, less than 24 hours later, the Giant was ready. Beto and his gigantic but sweet-tempered dog walked me around to the shop entrance.

With the Giant up on the cradle, Beto spun the wheel to show me how true it was and adjusted the brakes to my liking. What a relief.

I asked him how much I owed him. He hadn’t committed to a firm price beforehand because it depended on what the problem was. I hadn’t pushed, and frankly I expected to overpay. This guy had the skills I needed, making him one in a thousand in the refaccionerías of Mexico. I didn’t have any other options for bringing my bike back up to professional standards.

But asked the price, Beto demurred a moment longer. Then, in Spanish:

“This is something I want to do for you as a gift.”

I blinked, and made sure I’d heard him correctly.

“Yes, it’s a gift,” he repeated, then switched to English. “Because you are following a dream.”

I was humbled. I thanked Beto, who downplayed it (“For me, this is what I enjoy doing. It’s like playing around.”) I tried to think of something I could do in return, but there was nothing. It was an act of generosity and solidarity. Thank you, Beto.

In the moment, I totally forgot to ask if I could snap his picture, so I hope he won’t mind if I borrow one from his site:

Bici Burro.

If you ever find yourself in San Miguel de Allende, consider renting a bike from Beto. All of his machines are in the best of shape and I believe he’ll take good care of you. And if you do meet him, tell him the dream is still alive.

Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Escaping SLP

Last time, one of my patented “shortcuts” became a hardscrabble mule track in the desert and brought me face to face with a funnel cloud. I managed to wobble into the city of San Luis Potosí, an unplanned stop, hours after dark. Now we pick up in the city and try to get this ride back on track.

Photo by André

View in San Luis Potosí. Photo by André

Thursday, November 27 (Day 874 of the Great Adventure)—From the Lord’s House to the King’s

Hotel restaurants know they have a captive audience. Either the prices are high, the food is meh or both. But when I woke up in San Luis Potosí all I wanted was to eat quickly and get on with my day. 10% discount coupon in hand, I headed to the Hotel Maria Cristina’s in-house comedor. It became clear quickly that they weren’t interested in serving a foreigner. This wasn’t just the usual slow service. Table after table of Mexican families were seated, placed their orders, and saw their food come while I sat ignored. The server carefully kept her back to me at all times. I had two choices: waste even more time looking for another restaurant, or step up. I looked around, identified the manager (also with her back to me) and stood up from my table. “DISCÚLPE,” I half-yelled. Conversations stopped and all eyes fixed on the guero. The manager had no choice but to turn my way. I raised my hands, my eyebrows and my shoulders in the classic American gesture of “WTF.” She muttered the equivalent of “right away” and went to harass one of her servers, as if it was that person’s fault. I watched, still standing until the manager came in person. I ordered my food and conversations resumed around us. (Mom, if you’re reading this: thanks for teaching me how to be a problem customer.) The delay bothered me because I had a full morning ahead. As long as I was in a major city I figured I should hit the local bike shops and try to find a replacement for my damaged tire. Four local bike shops all referred me to one famed master: Bicicletas Villaseñor. I arrived twenty minutes before they opened, waiting outside his green door. A collection of hardcore cyclists gathered in the street. Three of them rode low-rider stunt bikes, complete with fat tires and front/back pegs. The fourth, an upper class kid with the air of a scholar, perched on a tall road bike—the space-age descendant of my own Miyata. His ultralight frame, pencil-thin tires and pro sports wear indicated he was a racer. The street bikes showed off some amazing stunts that the road bike wasn’t built to match, but El Académico had a few tricks of his own. Occasionally one of these urban badasses would glance my way as if wondering what my story was, but mostly they were engrossed in popping flips and wheelies.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

At no point was I tempted to show off my own stunts. For one thing, that’s not the kind of bike I rock and for another, doing tricks on a damaged tire seems like a poor choice. But mostly, I just have a different talent set: I don’t ride along curbs on just one wheel, but I can go 175 km in on day. That’s impressive enough by cyclist standards. Finally the inevitable older, Obi-Wan-looking store owner showed up and opened the door. I followed the stuntsters through the narrow opening. They all gathered around me and Obi Wan introduced himself. “A su orden,” he offered. But my wait was for nothing. He checked his inventory and had no sturdy, long-road-trip-worthy 27″ tires in stock. It’s just not a common thing in Mexico. (Cheap crummy 27″ tires or high quality 26″-ers, sure.) I thanked him and left the Villa behind This is really where I should’ve given up—if he didn’t have them, nobody would. But I’m not good at giving up. I went to a few more stores in the area, all of which referred me back to Villaseñor. I figured I would try a different neighborhood on the way out of town. Most of the day’s frustrations aren’t worth detailing. Suffice it to say that I rode through ghettos, freeway bridges and exurbs to hit two more bike suppliers. One didn’t exist except on Apple Maps (which sucks) and the other was a warehouse, not a store at all. They probably had exactly what I needed on the shelves inside, but coudn’t sell it to me. Of the two security guards at the warehouse, one wanted to shoot me for daring to walk in the office door and the other warmly drew me a map to a store that sold their products. After trying to find it twice I determined that it was either nowhere near where he thought it was or it had closed long ago. Sometime after 1 p.m. I finally shrugged off the quest and hopped on the freeway. And I was stung. Maybe it was the urgency of getting out of a big dirty city or maybe I just needed to work off some frustration. I dug my feet into the Giant’s pedals like never before and cannonballed the interstate. I covered two hours’ worth of distance in one, then turned toward Villa de Reyes on a road signposted as the “Ruta de Haciendas Potosinas” (Route of Potosian Plantations). You can see what the surroundings looked like here. At that turn a tailwind billowed up behind me. I kicked into the pedals with new muscles built strong on the mountains. The gears clicked up into second-highest. It’s an insane setting for long distance cruising, but it synced my body with the wind. We soared. Around 4:00 I came out of my trance and realized I was in some sort of town. It was Villa de Reyes. I rolled to a stop and looked around in confusion: my legs couldn’t understand why they weren’t still moving, and the rest of me couldn’t believe I was here so soon. It was two hours till sunset, and if the pace held out I could reach the larger town of San Felipe by dark. It would surely have a better selection of hotels. On the other hand, stopping here was the safe bet—if there was anywhere to stay. A cruise down the equivalent of Main Street convinced me to stay. I could only locate two hotels, one that looked like a complete hole and the other that looked delightful. (They were two different entrances to the same place.) I rolled my bike inside and got a room. I thought my troubles might be over. Villa de Reyes is a charming town, with a stream/canal running through it and houses built on bridges over the canal. But I wasn’t in for the best night. The hotel boasted internet and hot water, neither of which worked; the room was freezing; and when I asked for a receipt I was told it would cost extra (uh?). The beds were made of rocks and my only lightbulb exploded in the middle of the night. The one enjoyable part of my evening was finding a crazy good cocina economica, where the doña kept candles on a Guadalupe shrine over her brick oven. After dinner, both my mobile internet and the hotel internet failed, and I turned in for a fitful night of sleep. 33.3 miles.


Friday, November 28 (Day 875 of the Great Adventure)—Oh Dolores

I had client work to finish, so I awoke early hoping for a 4G signal. It still wasn’t there, and I had to adjourn to the freezing hotel courtyard to pick up wi-fi. Wrapped in a blanket, I typed away as the sun came up. For those of you keeping score, this was when I finally ran out of prepaid internet thanks to some earlier bungling. I spent the morning variously shivering, looking for somewhere that would serve me breakfast, asking Telcel kiosks all the wrong questions, or wandering more than a mile to an Oxxo station to get a giant cup of real coffee. Finally I found a doña who could help. She ran a little electronics shop and tried to explain everything I didn’t understand about my Telcel account. Another $400 pesos later I had the internet back. It was another very late start, departing after noon. I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to Villa de Reyes and I looked forward to covering some mileage. The easy target would be San Felipe, but all signs pointed to a farther town, Dolores Hidalgo, being prettier and well worth a visit. I decided to go 60 miles and reach it, late start or no. The day was mostly uneventful. I turned onto the wrong highway as I left town, which meant narrow lanes and no shoulder. One semi truck ran me off the road, and you can see my feelings on that in the video logs if you’re a supporter. I turned a corner at a bypass road around San Felipe. The land after that made everything better. More narrow rural roads but the traffic was light. Vast hilly surroundings, green instead of brown, and I had crossed the border into gorgeous Guanajuato state. In setting like this my creative side returns. I recorded two long voice memos to myself as I pedaled, one of which became The Birth of a New Heroism. The Giant rolled into Dolores Hidalgo exactly at sunset. It was indeed a gorgeous, welcoming and thriving town—the opposite of Villa de Reyes. The second hotel I walked into, Hotel CasaMia, was pretty much the perfect place: friendly staff, beautiful space and affordable prices. After taking a hot shower I basked in the presence of two working internet signals. I was drained. I wandered around town a little bit, taking in one of the prettiest and most active Centros I’ve seen. I passed on the fancy cafes off the central jardín and found a place with a college vibe that served pizza, tacos and burgers. I chose a platter of alambre (meat and fixings supposedly roasted on skewers, but usually just grilled) that consisted of steak, bacon, mushrooms, pineapples and cheese. This I rolled up into tacos until I was so full I couldn’t eat another bite. An early night in a comfortable (if cold) room awaited me. 62.5 miles.


Saturday, November 29 (Day 876 of the Great Adventure)—Rest Day

By the time I’d gone to sleep I pretty much knew I’d be taking an unplanned rest day in Dolores Hidalgo. I didn’t really need more rest so much as I was enchanted by the town and the chance to explore it. The way I travel, working while I’m on the road, has its downsides, but this is definitely an upside. I can stop in pretty much any place I fancy. After breakfast at a corner cafe I canvassed out from the Centro. Dolores Hidalgo, like Villa de Reyes, had a central canal. But instead of building over it they turned it into an attractive green riverfront. I also had something of a mission. I saw lots of artesanías (handmade craft shops) and decided to pick up a small lightweight shoulder bag. Men carry these a lot more commonly in Mexico, and it would be handy for taking my laptop or a book when I went out. Check out the result:

My bag. Photo by André.

My bag. Photo by André.

I was surprised to find a place called Zona “V” (the V Zone, meaning the Green Zone) in the local public market. They had salads, green smoothies, natural juices, vegetarian and gluten free food, and other healthy stuff. I wanted a regular unhealthy Cuban sandwich, which they were happy to make, but I washed it down with a terrific mix of grapefruit and orange juice. Much of the day was dedicated to writing, which I did in the CasaMia’s courtyard. Dolores Hidalgo is the city where the Mexican Revolution began, and I shot a video at the historic church where the cry for independence was raised. (I got every single one of my Mexican history facts wrong, however, and had to film a do-over the next morning.) For dinner I went back to the same college-atmosphere cocina and this time tentatively tried their pizza, which was actually really good. I worked late into the night and got ready for tomorrow’s ride, which would take me to San Miguel de Allende—the halfway point in the ride across Mexico.

Total traveled this leg: 95.8 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3636.1 miles.

Next time I strike toward San Miguel and my first every Spanish immersion homestay. Until then, check out all my road logs or become a supporter and get the video logs.

Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Tornado in the Desert

When last we left off, I had been through a harrowing ride through a desert on a nearly-broken bicycle, on the verge of being stranded out in the cold. I’d managed to reach a town, repair my bicycle by working through the night, and wobble exhausted to the dead little burg of Moctezuma, SLP. After a day of rest there, I was ready to depart the “Corridor of Oases” and strike off into desert once more…

Photo by Kevin Schraer

Wednesday, November 26 (Day 873 of the Great Adventure)—The  Road Least Traveled

Mexico’s waiters are not fleet of foot. A few very high end places defy the rule and recruit almost obsessive servers. They accost you for your convenience between each mouthful, so eager to clear your dishes that they snatch them away half full. Most places, however, from casual streetside taco stands to mainline restaurants, sit at the other end of the spectrum. The cultural expectation is not that they will come check on you in case you need something. The expectation is that they will visit you only when they must drop off your order, and otherwise stay far away. If you need your waiter, it is acceptable to call loudly from across the room.

The breakfast I had my last morning in Moctezuma pushed this standard to new lows. A server may do many things while pointedly not looking in your direction: they may chat with friends, check their phone or mop. My server opted for the latter approach—but not in the restaurant. Instead she left and swept an alley behind it, as if she had a grave duty to avoid the actual dining area where I sat, menu in hand, wanting food.

And the alley required a lot of attention. It wasn’t just the sweeping, it was caring for the flower pots and sprinkling water to hold down the dust. I assume a boyfriend was meeting her back there, and I accept that her teenage loins take precedence over my chilaquiles.

I don’t know what a Mexican customer would have done. Maybe they would’ve gone in the alley and placed their order, or yelled so loud that she could hear them from outside. There were no other customers to learn from. In any case I’m from the U.S.; I don’t chase down waiters. I sit quietly at my table hoping to catch someone’s eye, and I get annoyed.

Eventually, I heard shuffling in the kitchen. Sensing a doña, I strolled over to the order-up window.

“Hi there,” I said. “Could I order some red chilaquiles with fried eggs?”

“Sure,” she said.

Then she went outside, got the waitress (presumably in flagrante delicto) and sent her over to my table. I then gave my order a second time.

This is how the entire meal went: if I wanted something I got the doña’s attention, but instead of handing me whatever it was she summoned the waitress. At one point, the doña fetched the waitress so I could ask for more coffee; the waitress repeated this to the doña, who poured it herself. By the end of the meal I wasn’t sure if I should short the tip or double it.

Eventually I got on the bike. I headed back across the bridge to the outskirts, smashing over a hidden tope (speed bump) on the way and destroying my plastic toolbox. I picked its contents off the road and shoved them into a bag. I wondered what else Fortuna could have in store for me on such a lovely day.

My route turned off the Corridor of Oases. Where I had been heading south, I now swung east. The plan was to go completely around the city of San Luis Potosí, the state capital. There were a few reasons for this:

  • Biking through big cities is terrible.
  • I’ve already seen this city, and actually lived there for 6 weeks or so (pictures, stories).
  • I was too late to meet up with my friend who lives there, who had just left on a business trip for several weeks.

Instead, I planned to strike out for the town of Villa de Arista, then turn south and cut across some desert north of the city, turning away at the last minute on one of the highways that runs around it. I’d seek out a roadside hotel or lodging in a small outlying town. Alberto, a gentleman I’d spoken with while hitting a laundry in Moctezuma, was confident I’d find hotels in those towns. It was a medium-long bike ride for one day, but far from my longest.

There was one downside to skipping San Luis Potosí: bike shops. As a major metropolis it presumably had good ones, and there was a chance I replace my damaged tire—or even fix my wheel wobble. But the tire seemed to be doing fine and I was already in contact with a bike mechanic farther up ahead.

So I put my back to the wind and pedaled on.

The first part of the trip went well. I made a quick stop in Villa de Arista for a snack and Gatorade. One of the locals, another Alberto, saw the bike and made small talk. I learned the word for “scarf” from him (bufanda). I also asked him about the road ahead. He assumed I meant a freeway many miles east of the town, a major route toward San Luis Potosí. That wasn’t the highway I meant at all. I planned to turn south right here in Villa. I’d eventually cut over to the same highway he meant, but save many miles by taking a country road.

Alberto shook his head and told me something I couldn’t translate, which may or may not have been a warning. I politely thanked him and went on my way, sticking to my plan. After all, I had Google.

Heading south meant no more tailwind. The terrain also quickly went from green cropland back to desert. The sun grew hot. I noticed that some of the roads I passed, marked as major ones on the map, were just gravel trails. For some reason that didn’t give me pause.

Finally I reached a tiny village known as Rincon de Leijas (if anyone can tell me what Leijas means you win a bicycle shaped cookie). This was where I needed to hang a right onto a new road. But as I cruised into town, the only right-hand turn was an old gravel mule track. “That’s weird,” I thought, and figured it was a bit farther up ahead. But all I found was a residential street and a dead end.

The mule track was my right-hand turn.

I harrumphed. Going back to Villa meant nearly two hours wasted, plus having to take the longer route Alberto recommended. On the other hand, this mule track was a very short segment on the map. It just jogged over to another more major highway. With no cell signal in the desert I couldn’t get a fix on the exact distance, but I eyeballed it as maybe 2 miles. That’s less than an hour of walking.

Gallantly, I wheeled my bike toward the trail and strode off the paved highway into the desert. Farm families watched me in silence as I departed their fair burg, and I kept my head up as if this was exactly what I’d intended to do. Who doesn’t want a quick constitutional in the wasteland?

Two vehicles passed me as I left Rincon de Leijas: one mule (with a rider) and one tractor (with a rider with a parasol). Both returned my head nod and neither asked any potentially embarrassing questions.

The mule track went over a rocky ridge, so I couldn’t actually see my destination up ahead. But I was confident that the hour wasted walking the bike would still be shorter than backtracking.

The hour passed. Atop the ridge I surveyed the land before me. I couldn’t clearly see the other highway I was supposed to meet. Then again, in a rocky rolling scrubland that wasn’t surprising. My mule trail curved left up ahead, which was exactly what it was supposed to do before merging. Perfect.

It took me a long time to admit that the highway didn’t exist. Not just that it too was unpaved: I never saw any other track at all.

I considered my options. The mule trail continued in the correct direction, the direction the “highway” was supposed to run. It pointed south, where sooner or later there would be towns and San Luis Potosí. I’d get there eventually. On the other hand, the cost of backtracking had grown by another hour and a half. And what’s the worst thing that could happen wandering alone in a desert?

So, fuck it. I kept walking the bike.

I was also highly conscious of my supplies. I had the camping gear to survive a night in the desert, cold as it would be. As for food, surviving on Cliff Bars is far from haute cuisine but it’ll do the job. Water was the real issue. Expecting to be able to stop at roadside stores, I had only a liter and a half on me. I could ration half of it for today/tonight and save half for tomorrow. That ought to get me to civilization.

So I walked through the desert. Once, a truck passed me; I didn’t think about flagging him down and he didn’t think about stopping. You might think of a truck as a reassuring sign, a symbol that I really was headed toward civilization, but he could have been a rancher. There was every possibility that the mule trail would just dead end.

The afternoon wore on. I felt oddly calm. My main problem was the stones that kept getting in my shoes. I stopped bothering to empty them out. The surroundings were beautiful, and I felt at home there.

At one point the trail dipped down to cross a dry stream bed. I entered the low area, and my view of the countryside ahead was cut off just for a moment.

Then I started up the far bank, looking up. And I froze.

Towering over me, straight ahead, was a tornado.

I’ve never seen a tornado except in movies  and news footage. But there was no mistaking it. And this sucker was huge. It was a giant vertical column ripping up the beige dust around me. It moved directly over the trail. And it was close.

My mouth dropped open. Parts of me were already spinning, spooling up, plotting my survival. I had to do something other than stand there and take it.

And then it was gone. As quick as it had appeared, the tornado fell to pieces and swirled itself out into nothing. Mouth still open I started laughing, loud, hard.

It wasn’t a tornado. It was a dust devil.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a giant fucking dust devil. This isn’t one of those swirls of leaves you see in autumn. This bad boy reached to the heavens. But it was nothing to be afraid of, just a bit of dirt caught in a swirl of the wind. Even if it had run right over me, the worst I would’ve suffered was a mouthful of grit.

Still, it had my hackles up. The tornado itself wasn’t even what got me. It was the way it appeared out of nowhere, with no warning. And then seeing it disappear just as quick. “Devil” seemed right: it was conjured and banished as quickly as a sorcerer’s pet.

Still smiling, I pushed on. I walked right through the spot where it had been and everything was at peace.

Much later, a huge truck passed me. This one stopped up ahead. I squinted as various people got off. The truck drove on, leaving them there, and they stayed by the side of the road. Were they waiting for me? What did they want?

As I got closer, I realized they had tools and were digging. And then I realized something much more important, but much harder to see: the road next to them was paved.

A mere three or four hours after nodding my head to a cowboy with a parasol, I had reached the fabled paved road. It was bikable.

As soon as I touched pavement I mounted up. I surveyed the workers, head again held high. They all stopped working and stared at me like I was insane.

I’m pretty used to that look.

“Buenas tardes,” I said, nodded, and pedaled down the road.


The road soon led to a village (called Nuevo Tanque, “New Tank,” which I imagine has a corporate story behind it). It had an abarrotes shop and I went in for water. From the look on the doña’s face they didn’t get a lot of gueros in these parts, and even less crawling out of the desert. A gentleman there wanted to get chatty but, now four hours behind schedule, I had to keep going.

The rest of the afternoon was increasingly green land and occasional villages, all uphill. I had a difficult choice to make. There was absolutely no question that I’d be bicycling after dark, so should I stick to the original plan, or divert and head into the city? One option meant blindly searching for lodging after sunset, and the other was a shit show of bad biking conditions.

It was tough. I really, really didn’t want to go into the city. But searching hotels on Google showed them clustered in the metro, and nothing on the freeway. That didn’t mean there weren’t any highway hotels, but holding out hope in the freezing dark on a 6-lane freeway is a rough way to spend an evening.

At the final fork in the road, right before sunset, I made the call: we’re going to SLP.

There were two more towns before hitting the big city, and I held onto at least a small hope that one of them would have an inn. Neither did, and it was at this time that my back wheel chose to resume scuffing the against the frame. I stopped twice, once in each town, and threw my saddlebags roadside to turn the Giant upside down and adjust his back wheel. The second time, I cranked those lugnuts hard. And as quick as I had stopped, I pushed on.

Outside San Luis Potosí, the boundary between country and city is so precise it looks like a video game. An overpass formed a simple border: on one side was pristine green-gold farmland, on the other was smog-stained industrial slum. Straddling the divide was a giant gas station. It had a sign for showers but none for a hotel. Shrugging, I crossed the line.

That was about the same moment the sun fell behind the mountains, and the effect was pronounced. I remember my friend the Wandering Dragon, my host when I lived in SLP, warning me there were certain parts of town you just don’t go into. The road I was on went all the way across one.

The first problem was pavement. It was such a crater field I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear artillery shells. I urged the Giant to be strong, but it wasn’t just his life that was in danger.

The neighborhood itself was a mix of slummy residential structures with metal shops, warehouses and the odd taco stand. At first it was mostly deserted, and the few faces I saw tracked me with interest. Then it got darker. They couldn’t see that I had professional saddle bags rather than a crate of produce.

Additionally, it became denser and more residential. Trash fires lined the streets. People milled about, traffic increased, other bicycles passed me. I kept my head down, hoping to blend in, and I made a point to never speak. In the dark, I wasn’t a guero unless I opened my mouth.

The ride was nerve wracking, but no worse than the bad neighborhoods I’d gone through in south Memphis or Saint Louis—and marginally better than the street party in Baton Rouge. Early on, I made an agreement with myself that if things got any worse I would just turn it around and go back to the freeway, and figure out a backup plan. I never thought of that option again. (Which may indicate how skewed my judgment is, because not much later I went past a large-scale police bust in progress.)

By the time I reached a part of town that might be considered halfway respectable, I had also reached intense traffic conditions. The road turned from asphalt to large rectangular paving stones, a pain to ride on. I remember the Dragon complaining about these and me saying they’re pretty. Eff you, past André.

To make things more interesting, it became one-way and I faced a wall of traffic. I refused to reroute to the correct-way street, but did take to the sidewalk for several blocks.

Finally, the street spat me out somewhere I recognized. I had reached a park in the Central Historic district, a perfectly safe and peaceful place to stop. These transitions don’t even feel weird anymore: guarding my life one minute, sitting on a park bench perusing my iPhone the next. I identified several hotels within blocks and set out for one that, based on the reviews, sounded affordable but nice.

A few minutes later I rolled the bike up to the Hotel Maria Cristina. Its grand staircase looked both elegant, and difficult to haul a bike up. Most of all it looked expensive. I leaned against the wall, checking my phone for the other hotels in the area.

At that point some random guy walked up to me. “Mande,” he said.

Now I know that mande means “excuse me.” At the time I didn’t know that word. So I looked up and said, essentially, “What?”

The man hesitated. He had thought I was Mexican until I spoke. (I find this happens not infrequently: remember, Latinos don’t actually come in any one skin or hair color, and have their fair share of blondies.) While he stuttered to reorient himself, I lost my patience. I had spent the last hour trying to repel potential troublemakers, and strangers usually only approach you in big cities to ask for money. Basically, my defenses were up.

“Que quiere?” I snapped, which translates as a fairly brisk whaddya want.

He hesitated but went on. “I just think your bike is beautiful,” he said in English.

Immediately my heart softened, and so did my demeanor. He could still be hustling me for all I knew, but he sure had a creative way of doing it.

We started talking about bikes and my trip. He loves old road bikes and wanted to know what kind the Giant is (a Miyata, for those interested). He owns a Raleigh not unlike the one I’d just helped a friend in New Orleans sell. He desperately wants to do long distance biking, but hasn’t had a chance yet.

“Where do you want to bike?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said. We laughed.

Finally I asked him if he could do me a favor. “I need to run in and see how much this hotel costs,” I said. “Will you watch my bike?”

He hesitated. “How long?” he asked. [Andre’s note: if you want to steal someone’s bike, this is a great tactic. As soon as he was reluctant I was 100% sure I’d found a trustworthy person to watch it.]

I assured him it would just be a minute and he agreed. The hotel turned out to be something like 500 pesos, more than I usually spend but not so much more that I was going to keep wandering the streets looking for a bargain. I came outside and told my new friend the good news.

I also asked if he lived in San Luis Potosí, thinking maybe we’d get dinner together or something. He actually doesn’t, but he’s there often for work. He told me he lives in Rioverde. Now it was my turn to light up: Rioverde is one of the area’s more pristine tourist destinations, famous for a crescent moon shaped lake. He confirmed that the lake is divinely beautiful and asked if my trip would take me that way.

“I don’t know,” I said. As I recalled, it was east of the city and well off my route.

“Well if you do, you have a place to stay,” he told me. He introduced himself by his full name—four names long—and told me that anyone in town would know him and point out his house to me. I committed all four names to memory and promised my friend I would stop by if I went that way. (Unfortunately I was right; it’s pretty far off my route.)

After that the night was a wind-down. The hotel actually had a parking garage, and encouraged me to just roll the bike in there. I chained him up and U-locked him to a railing near the motorcycle parking. The attendant nodded approvingly. “Very smart,” he said in Spanish. Bike locks don’t seem real common in Mexico.

A bellboy (bellman?) brought the rest of my stuff upstairs. The place came with free water, more nonfunctional wi-fi, and not a single outlet to be found in my room. Seeking to avoid the high prices of a hotel restaurant, I went to a cafe around the block. They handed me what could have been a carbon copy of the hotel menu. Same dishes, same prices.

My waiter, at least, was a source of familiar comfort. He may not have had an alley to retreat to, but he subscribed to the exact school of service as the girl who brought me breakfast. 59.6 miles.

Map 1. 26.3 miles

Map 2. 5.5 miles walking

Map 3. 27.8 miles.

Total traveled this leg: 59.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 3540.3 miles.

Next time the biking gets easier and the hotels get a whole lot worse. Until then, here are all my road logs.

Adventure, Bicycling, Travel

Inventory Management

A view in Veracruz.  Photo by André.

A view in Veracruz. Photo by André.

A quick break from posts about heroism to talk about what a weird day this has been. It’s one of those days where I accomplished a lot, but only because a lot went wrong.

I’ve been experiencing some knee pain lately, a scary thing on a bicycle. It came to a head as I rolled into Coatzalcoalcos, Veracruz. Longtime readers will know something similar happened on the ride down the Mississippi, and that time I ditched some gear and adjusted my seat. I decided to do the same thing this time.

I carry a lot of weight on the bicycle, and a big chunk of it is camping gear. But I haven’t camped out even once on this trip. So why am I hauling it around? My knees pump that extra weight on every pedal stroke, up every hill.

But I can’t just throw away the gear. It’s a few hundred dollars worth of equipment, and I’d like to have it for the future. So I decided to send it someone for safekeeping. The problem was where to send it.

If I sent it to the US, I wouldn’t have access to any of it after reaching the Yucatán. But I don’t know anyone in Yucatán to hold onto it for me, and if I send it care of Lista de Correos (General Delivery), they’ll throw it out in two weeks—probably before I arrive there to claim it. And all of these options suffer from the fatal flaw of Mexico’s postal system: a bad habit of making valuable-looking packages disappear.

So today was a Problem Solving Rollercoaster. I had to find a box (hint: don’t go to any of the places that people assure you will sell boxes), make my stuff fit into it, locate a post office, and figure out where all this was going. Ultimately I decided on just sending it stateside, which means I had to choose very carefully which items I’ll need for the duration of my stay in Mexico.

All this nonsense was oddly satisfying. I started the day tense and uncertain then solved my problems one by one. And I had to wander around town to figure this stuff out, meeting more people and speaking more Spanish than I have in the past three days of regular biking.

All in all, a good day. And one that illustrates that real-life adventure has at least one thing in common with fantasy adventure:

Inventory management sucks.


Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Religion, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Ghost Towns of Real de Catorce

Last time I labored over a mountain pass and crossed a desert, setting a new record for the most miles traveled in one day. This time begins my second rest stop in the town of Cedral, SLP.

Sunday, November 16 – Tuesday, November 18, 2014—Rest and Work

Although I had come a long way and arrived early (by the official itinerary), I couldn’t slack off. I had plenty of client work to do and started my time in Cedral by diving right into it.

That doesn’t mean I got no rest. My first morning, I slept till almost 9—my compensation for the early mornings preceding. But as I stirred, wearing only my briefs, I was surprised to see a face at my window: Doña Blanca was there, bringing me breakfast in bed!

She had originally invited me to dine downstairs, but since I was a late riser she brought my breakfast up to the apartment. I threw on my pants and opened the door, accepting the breakfast with my limited Spanish. It was no paltry meal:

Doña Blanca's breakfast. Photo by André.

Doña Blanca’s breakfast. Photo by André.

I spent most of the next two days working. There were occasional forays to the Centro for food (Blanca provided only one meal a day), and I made it a point to explore despite all the looks I got biking around town.

One thing I wanted to learn was where I could catch a bus to Real de Catorce, the nearby tourist destination/near ghost town/gateway to Huichol sacred land. When I asked about this in Abarrotes Conche, the corner store attached to the house, the woman behind the counter asked a 13 year old boy if he would show me the way. Thus began the first serious challenge to my Spanish speaking skills.

Juan, as my friend was called, was very friendly. We made chit chat as we walked toward the bus stop, as best we could with my limited Spanish. I tried to convey concepts much too complicated for my language proficiency, as I’m wont to do, but unlike adults he would question and question and question until we had a moment of communication. At one point, laughing, he told me, “Your Spanish is really bad.”

Later: “You need to learn more words.”

With that sage advice in mind we reached the bus stop, more an unmarked area where buses pause in their journeys than an official station. Juan rustled up Jorge Luis, Cedral’s bus fixer, who told me that I could catch a ride to Real every half hour for just $60 pesos. That was all I really needed to know; with the mission accomplished, I planned to return to working.

Juan had other ideas. “Where are we going now?” he asked.

Deciding to make the most of our time together, I thought about the other chores on my back burner. Blanca had been vague about what I should do for water: over the coming days, I would sometimes get free liters from her, sometimes need to pay for them, and sometimes simply go to other stores where I could get water cheaper.

“I need to get a galón,” I said, referring to a jug that actually holds several gallons. “At the Super. Want to come?”

Juan was game, but he wanted to show me his bike—and see mine. I agreed to wait a few moments while he ran home for the bici, and we saddled up.

As we cruised toward the Super, I pointed at his back rack. “I like your….. thing,” I said in Spanish.

“The grill?” (Helpful bike term: a rack is a parilla.)


“I use it when I work for my grandpa,” he said. “He grows onions and cilantro and I take them to market. But he lives 3 kilometers outside of town. It’s very far.”

I cracked up laughing. After Juan rode me all morning about my Spanish, here was something where I finally dominated.

“Very far!” I taunted. “Two days ago I rode 175 km in one day.”

Once Juan confirmed the numbers, I had finally won his respect. We entered the supermarket and left our bikes unlocked outside. I had seen many locals do this, but had always locked mine up regardless; now I left it up to Fortuna, as if my association with this 13-year-old don would protect my property.

Inside, we found galónes. I already wondered how I was supposed to tip my friend—he had helped me, and by Mexican logic I should tip him in some way. But I didn’t know how much, or when, or if it could be perceived as an insult (what if he was just being friendly?). Thankfully he made it easy for me: as we walked toward the checkout he asked, “Can I get some juice?” There was no doubt who was paying for it, and I agreed: at 6 pesos, it seemed like a low price. He’ll learn eventually.

On the way home Juan tried to convince me that I should try a nieve (snow cone), which I couldn’t explain to him pales in comparison to the snowballs of New Orleans. I perceived this as an attempt at another free treat and, since I really did have work to do, I passed on the offer.

Being a writer, not a photographer, I failed to snap Juan’s picture. We parted on friendly terms, but I wouldn’t see him again for the remainder of my stay.

Also during these two days I did some laundry with the help of some niños. It turned out pretty well.

But the real excitement of these days was what would come next. One of my traveler friends who happened to be in Mexico heard that my cycling companions had evaporated, and offered to come up to Cedral for a few days so we could go to Real de Catorce together. (That was actually a big part of why I headed to Cedral rather than Matehuala: my friend had spotted Doña Blanca’s place on AirBnB.)

Monday night I watched as a hired car rolled up the street to Abarrotes Concha, my friend sitting inside. After dropping off bags we headed to the only late night taquería in town. Getting some English-language conversation was divine, and not being the only guero in town didn’t hurt either. I was finally part of a small group again, rather than a lone oddity.

On Tuesday we both finished work for our respective clients and finalized our plans for Real.

Wednesday, November 19 (Day 866 of the Great Adventure)—Real de Catorce

Wednesday morning found us huddled in the cold desert wind just after breakfast under Jorge Luis’ watchful gaze. His full parilla of gold teeth gleamed as he reassured us we would love Real. Soon enough we were ushered aboard a (thankfully) warm bus and took our seats.

My friend opted to catch a final nap despite the blaring Will Smith action movie that suddenly lit up screens all around the bus. I preferred to gaze out the window, taking in a surreal cloud-covered landscape that got higher and steeper as we made our way to progressively less paved roads. Goat herders and an abandoned pueblo drifted out of the mist, the only sign of civilization until we reached the final approach: a cobblestone road curving up a mountain to a height of about 9,000 feet.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

That was only the first course, however. At the top of the road we stopped and the few other passengers on board simply got up and left. With no explanation in either Spanish or English, we shrugged followed. All of us huddled around a faux colonial plaza, deserted except for a lone candy seller. We knew what came next—the Tunnel, which loomed at the edge of the plaza—but not exactly what the procedure was.

We didn’t have to wait long. A smaller bus rattled out of the mist and opened its door. Hopping aboard, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was the same driver wearing a different hat. The tiny group of travelers spread out on hard plastic seats and we rumbled toward the hole in the mountain.

There’s only one road in or out of Real de Catorce, and instead of going over one of the tallest mountains in Mexico it opts to go through it. The Ogarrio Tunnel is one part mine shaft, one part public works project, and one part tourist attraction. It’s also so narrow that it barely has just one lane; traffic takes turns coming in and going out. (“Taking turns” may be an overstatement, however, since at least on weekdays there was no real traffic waiting at either side.)

I was eager to see the Tunnel, because at one point I had considered bicycling through it. By that plan I would have biked up the mountain and through the Ogarrio to get into Real, then depart by a sort of goat trail to continue the Adventure. I nixed the idea because the first road is paved with tire-busting cobbles. I had also heard rumors that vehicle exhaust inside the Tunnel makes it virtually impossible to cross unless sealed inside a car or bus.

The rumors weren’t exaggerated. In the black of the tunnel I spotted a carved stone doorway, a branching mine shaft and, within a minute or two, clouds of haze choking out the yellow lamps overhead. With over a mile to go, the bus itself began to smell of exhaust.

Yes, we rode a bus through this. Photo via Mexico Desconocido

At length we spilled out into daylight and a mostly empty plaza. The other travelers seemed to know where they were going, and we vaguely followed. Soon we found ourselves mostly alone except for occasional hustlers hoping to sell us everything from breakfast or guidebooks to hallucinogenic cacti.

Our first mission was to find a hotel. We looked at several and settled on Hotel Corral de Conde, a mid-level choice with beautiful interiors but no heaters and wi-fi only in the lobby. Along the way we got the story on the “Catorce” (fourteen) the town is named after, from an old man outside the tourist office:

“There’re different versions. It can be fourteen anything. Fourteen bandits, fourteen Spanish soldiers, fourteen miners, fourteen Huicholes. It depends on who’s telling it.”

With our things deposited at the Corral we set out for the first objective of our stay: an ancient cemetery and chapel outside of town. Travel websites make it sound like it’s miles away, so that you’ll hire a horse (or a bike or a jeep) to get there, but it’s really about an 8 minute walk—at least once you get directions. The few locals on the street wore tourist blinders and had little interest in telling us the way, but we found a sun-faded and vine-covered map on a placard by the centro that gave us the right general bearing.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

The walk may have been short, but it wasn’t easy. At 9,000 feet every breath of air is a lucha match. Add in a steep hill or three on every street in town and we understood why horse rides are so popular.

The view was worth it, however. At the edge of town we caught our first glimpse of what I’ll call the Cloud Desert, the Huichol sacred land straddled by the mountains that surround Real. It was one solid expanse of white below us, a fog-covered lowland where you can die of thirst while soaked with dew.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

The cemetery before the chapel was crowded with old graves, many bearing fresh offerings. The chapel was built 300 years ago by a small mining community, and yet it’s more impressive than most cathedrals in the US. Even so, centuries of wear left the murals inside peeled and faded, looking more like Pollock paintings than pictures of angels.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

Inside the Chapel. That's Guadalupe on  the  left.

Inside the Chapel. That’s Guadalupe on the left.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Flanking the chapel entrance are two holy images, Guadalupe on the left and St. Francis on the right. I had brought candles for both. I approached Guadalupe first. Lighting her candle was a struggle in the drafty mountain temple. Eventually, candle lit, I knelt before her and prayed. Guadalupe is a miraculous virgin who has been sainted by the Church, but whom many believe corresponds to an earlier Aztec goddess. Kneeling there, I understood that she was the female presence that had appeared to me on top of the mountain pass.

I also offered to St. Francis, although the town’s main image of him is actually kept in the parish church, not out here in the roadside chapel.

Afterward we sought out a late lunch. We settled on the restaurant at the high end Hotel Meson de la Abundancia, as much because it was warm inside as because of what was on the menu. The food was incredible, however, and this became our eatery for the next 24 hours.

While my friend checked in on client work, I ran some errands (like buying us water) and stopped by the parish church. It has the most unique floor I’ve ever seen. It seems to be made out of old mining pallets rather than planks, arranged like giant hardwood tiles. Each board of each pallet is rounded smooth from centuries of feet. They sounded hollow under my footsteps.

The parish church  with the great floors. Photo by André.

The parish church with the great floors. Photo by André.

I was there mainly to see the other image of St. Francis, however:

St. Francis. Photo by André.

St. Francis. Photo by André.

This one is reputed to be miraculous and is the object of a long annual pilgrimage. The people of Real apparently are quite attached to St. Francis and have various local nicknames for him. I made offerings to him for my mother, who has always held him especially close to her heart, and then took a small pilgrim pin from a jar of them beside the statue. (I’m actually not clear whether you’re supposed to pick one up when you pray there, or wear one on your pilgrimage and deposit it in the jar at the end; in any case St. Francis said to go ahead and take one if I wanted.)

By this time it was nearly dark and the chill intensified. I explored a bit more before heading back to the hotel. We both caught up on work and grabbed an evening snack at the Meson before heading to bed.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Thursday, November 20 (Day 867 of the Great Adventure)—El Pueblo Phantasmo

Our alarm went off long before dawn. There was something else we had to see before leaving Real, and the hike there and back would take all morning.

Real de Catorce itself is often called a ghost town, but the truth is it was only mostly deserted after the silver industry collapsed in the early 1900s. By now it’s made a resurgence and has plenty of year-round residents. Other communities in the area, however, were truly abandoned; whole villages sit around forgotten mineshafts in the hills. I had spent a good part of the previous afternoon rustling up exact directions to one. “Exact” might be an overstatement, but I was confident I could at least find the trail head.

The morning started with a cold breakfast in the dark. We had pestered the hotel clerk the day before with a million variants of the same question: is there a free breakfast? A paid breakfast? Coffee at least? Is there somewhere else we can go for breakfast?

No, she explained between sighs. There is nothing.

So we had pastries I’d bought from a local vendor the night before, and washed them down with cold water. Then we put on every layer of clothing we had and opened the door to the freezing mountain wind.

We made our way through the abandoned cobble streets. At the edge of town we were surprised to see one tiny kitchen that was actually open, run by the world’s grumpiest doña. She offered us go cups of Nescafé at Starbucks prices. We used them alternately as beverages and hand warmers as we continued on our way.

To the left of the Ogarrio tunnel entrance we found a gravel road up out of town. Soon we were in the mountains, the sky barely grey and the town shrinking in the darkened valley.

The sun rose somewhere between the mountaintops above us. The endless white of the Cloud Desert flared into being below, and then the rooftops of Real. The tolling of the church bell came to us on the wind.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

This was no beginner’s hike. The trail was steep and the wind wasn’t just cold, it was also low on oxygen. We gulped for breath and sniffled, walking along the mountainsides.

This is what we found:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

It’s a bro on a burro. Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

The first set of ruins clustered around the opening to a vertical mineshaft, a pit in the earth twenty feet across. It was half-heartedly covered with wire mesh to discourage accidental skydiving. Dropping a rock through the mesh, we listened in silence. We never heard it hit bottom.

There were other, more diagonal mine shafts as well. I would have gladly explored the underground palace if we’d had more time and a bit of chalk. Responsible adventurer that I am, I contented myself with entering the foyer for now.

Wandering the ruins left us with many questions. Were any of these big stone buildings bunkhouses, or did the men sleep in tents? Did the men have wives and families out here, or just prostitutes? Did they leave their camp town and its chapel to go on leave in Real, or did they live up in the hills all the time? What happened to a man who took sick and couldn’t work?

Supposedly, the miners were paid a share of the monthly silver yield, which made it a lucrative job. I don’t imagine it was a safe one. I wonder how many of those men planned to do it only a little while, save up, and quit; and how many succeeded.

By the time we came down the mountain the sun was high in the sky. We collected our empty coffee cups from the branches where we’d stuck them on the way up. Unlike the miners, we left no sign that we’d ever been there.

Now everything in town was open. We had a late breakfast at the Meson, then rounded up our things at the Corral. We caught the noon bus just as it pulled into the tunnel, and began the trip back down. We’d had very little time in Real, but I’d already decided I needed to come back. It’s somewhere I’d like to rent a room for a few weeks and do a proper writing retreat. I’d also like to put on a backpack and hike the desert.

The tunnel and mountain road were less mystical now. We’d learned at least a few of their secrets, and the mist had begun to thin. In just an hour we were back in the ordinary world. We spent the rest of the day working, hanging out or looking for better food options around Cedral. We didn’t find many.

Friday, November 21 – Saturday, Novvember 22—Work and Planning

The next morning we once again rose before dawn. My friend had an early bus to catch, and we walked together to Jorge Luis’ bus stop. Afterward, alone again, I made my way home for one of Doña Blanca’s breakfasts and more work. I spent my last two days in Cedral writing, with afternoon and late evening forays to get food. There wasn’t much else to do in this sleepy little town, except plan my route onward.

Next time, I take off across the desert… which is the worst place to break down. Until then, here are the rest of the road logs.