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On the road . March 2009 . Mexico

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In remembrance of:
We first met Stephan Störmer in Samarkand Uzbekistan: a vibrantly talkative German guy with his heart set on travelling around the world on one extremely heavily loaded bike. Ali couldn't lift the thing off the ground. He carried two of everything, just in case and could sit up all night chatting about his and others' touring adventures with an unbridled passion.

Later on in our travels, we met up with him again in Kashgar, China, just before our routes parted ways. We continued to bump into people who had met or had cycled with Stephan. This is how it is in the touring cyclist world: a tightly knit circuit, whether you have met one and other or not. Chances are, you will one day. Internet and e-mail now allows us to keep tabs on where everyone is in the world and how their travels are going. This camaraderie probably stems from us being a small and unique group of people following a desire to travel differently than most and when it all boils down to it: only a touring cyclists knows exactly what it is to be a touring cyclist.

We learned that on March 12, 2009, just one week short of his first return home and after three years on the road, Stephan was killed by a logging truck on a New Zealand road near the Bay of Plenty. I can't relay how alarming this news was to us. It hits home how vulnerable we are as touring cyclists and how much faith we put into the hands of larger and often more aggressive road users. Our deepest and most sincere sympathy to all his family, friends and fellow travellers who had the chance to meet this energetic man while he was fulfilling his admirable aspirations. (photo from Stephan's website)

Hotel Bocana, Zihuatanejo, Mexico, 22-03-09
San Blas to Melaque (6 cycle days; 398km; 3847m)
San Blas to Las Varas (70 km; 438 m)
Las Varas to Sayulita (53 km; 426 m)
Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta (48 km; 385 m)
Puerto Vallarta to El Tuito (45 km; 1022 m)
El Tuito to Punta Perula (101 km; 619 m)
Punta Perula to Melaque (80 km; 957 m)

Words escape me as we euphorically pedal out of San Blas after our nine week break. It was great to have stayed at Hotel Morelos, met Magdelana, chatted with all the people coming and going, especially Peter and Ron towards the end of our stay, but boy oh boy, does it feel good to be back on the road.

The journey starts off very flat: a total blessing seeing as we are incredibly out of shape. After a couple of genuine little fishing villages, a winding tropical Highway 12 weaves us up and down little mountains that are not too steep nor too long, but in our condition see us panting quite a bit. Past luminous green banana palms, papaya trees and jackfruit limbs bulging with their hefty harvest. In between bird song and visits from butterflies, the occasional car zips past, but it is not busy. The road is smooth, the people friendly and as I am thinking how fantastic life is, our path becomes a little too steep for comfort, a dirty stinking truck overtakes billowing plumes of black vapours into our faces, the dead animal stench becomes intense, the scenery abruptly changes, I notice how much litter is lying roadside and we are head on with one very harsh midday sun. Cycle touring is so extreme. Hardly ever in between, never just nice or okay, always amazing, incredible, ooh-aahh stunning or the absolute rock bottom slimy dungeon smelly pits.

The rest of the day moves along pretty much in the latter vein with our bums and temperaments getting progressively sorer, until we finally winch ourselves off the saddles and off Highway 76 in the small but busy town of Las Varas (70km; 438m). Compared to what we were cycling before we decided to expand the waistline by a few inches, this is a very easy ride. Today however, we can barely crawl up the stairs to our disappointing room at Hotel Lupita. A hundred and eighty pesos gets us a mattress that has the springs popping through the covers, torn sheets, pillows stuffed with what appears to be cardboard box mulch, a cold drizzle shower and mould decorated walls with some other unidentifiable goo smudged in for good measures; and I sure wasn't going to stick my finger in it to find out what it was.

The only consolation is the tv has all the movie stations and for what was left of the afternoon, we sit comatosed, unable to release anything comprehensible except for the occasional groan as we change bum positions on the uncomfortable bed.

What a pain in the backside
The long, slow and severely painstaking process of pedalling the bikes along the busy Highway 200 gets us as far as the next major beach resort and not the planned destination of Puerto Vallarta. We are more distracted by the pain in our backsides than the lack of shoulder and under normal circumstances the ambling up and down territory would have been an easy day of cycling.

All I can manage is a short stagger to the shop for food and refreshments and then a major flop on my Thermarest mattress where I fall deep in sleep. I wake to visions of blue skies filled with green palm foliage and pointy winged frigate birds; sounds of rolling surf and beating drums while a sauntering iguana the length of my handlebar makes his way across the concrete wall high above me. No, I'm not dreaming, we are in Sayulita (54km; 426m).

Reality is regrettably not the tropical oasis I first open my eyes to. This hippy-yuppy, gringo-mexican mix township gets it oh so terribly wrong. An assault of hammock touts, the usual rainbow coloured beachwear, useless love-bead paraphernalia mingled in with dvd's and junk seashell jewelry in a market place overcrowded with tourists thinking they are way too cool to be a tourist. While Camping El Palmar is superficially neat and tidy, under the surface it is clear the management do sod all to improve anything. They get their 70 pesos per night from campers who don't blink an eye at the mouldy cold water shower facilities and sparse tree planted plots. For them it is cheap, good-value accommodation. For us, its a place to lay the weary head and then get out of town as quickly as we got in. There are far more interesting villages, with way less attitude and much nicer beaches along this stretch of coast. They are also a fraction of the price.

Ron rocks up around 6pm and has journeyed the entire distance from San Blas in one day, which is a feat worthy of gold medal status as far as we are concerned. He looks beat and being the weekend, had encountered quite an entourage of disrespectful driving habits. We hit the road well before him the next day and start the 10 kilometre ascent to the 314m top. Life feels a little better in the saddle today, though the breathing is still not in form and whilst we have a bit of shoulder to play with, the traffic on the narrow winding roads is pretty nerve racking. The plummet down the other side is nothing short of stupendous. The cool wind feels great after such a sweaty climb and at the bottom we are greeted with the perfection of car-wide shoulder on a dual carriage-way. Worth a bit of tooting on the horn and ringing on the bell for sure.

Puerto Vallarta (48km; 385m) is not a pretty city to enter and the outskirt gringo onslaught drastically adds to its unattractiveness. For me, there are very few advantages of being in places like these, other than the obvious convenience of the mega store should you need to stock up on something unobtainable from a local Mexican abarrotes or mercado. But you really do need to ask yourself the question: "Is it at all possible that I can live without this item?" Otherwise, you'll find yourself in the checkout line squashed between shopping carts overflowing with Bacardi bottles, yellow skinned chickens and every array of fatty, sugary snack food possible. Not only over-consumptive; over-weight; over-tanned gringos stocking up the fridges in their over-sized RV's have you trapped, but the same sized, pushy upper-class Mexican will be digging those trolley wheels into the back of your ankles too. There is bound to be at least one delay at the cash register or you will get wrongly charged two and half million pesos for a can of refried beans, which will result in further waiting and over the normal decibel discussions between shop assistant and manager. Getting caught up in this scene is not one of the highlights of Mexico.

The road continues to deteriorate as we close in on the city centre. Road works force us to ride along the Malecon: a hive of colour, vibrancy, silver shops and cheap margaritas. Back on the road, the cobblestones further rattle every ache in our bodies and enough to let out a major sigh of relief when we spy Hotel Ana Liz in Zona Romatica: the old part of town. It is outrageously expensive at 350 peso's per night for a tiny room with bathroom, but neither of us have any inclination to go on the hunt for something cheaper. Ron pulls in a couple of hours later and we all plan to feast at the second advantage of being in a big city: the availability of the vegetarian buffet. There are two establishments in Puerto Vallarta and we choose to eat at Planeta Vegetariano: Iturbide #270, located downtown and close to the old church. Ron is as impressed as us with the all-you-can-eat buffet for 75 pesos per head. Overly-satisfied and well stocked up for tomorrow and our first major climb since Baja, we wander back through tourist ambience to the hotel.

A cool start to a cool end
It is another immediate leg crunching climb start to the day and continues for a kilometre or so before the road tames somewhat, though it never actually levels out. The early sun hasn't yet reached over the cliff to our left. Open-air Mercedes jungle cruisers brimming with tourists ready to part with 80 US dollars each for the steel cable jungle canopy tour at Las Juntas de los Veranos chug past us. We mosey even slower up and down along side brightly painted resort bungalows and village hotels in the cool morning shade. After 17 kilometres, just as I start to wonder when we will stop hugging this roller-coaster seawall, we begin heading inland and ascending over the Sierra Madre del Sur.

The climbing is not difficult, the downhill sections relieving and the traffic at a minimum. All in all, quite a beautiful ride way above a bubbling stream at the bottom of the rocky gorge. Still, Ali is not his chatty self, which means there is something wrong and by the grimace on his face, I can tell today is going to be a slow pedal. His back has been sore since we left San Blas and by the time Ron catches up with us a couple of hours later, we have already had three rest stops. The sun is now on full display and we continue on together for a few kilometres. Ali however, needs to stop at regular intervals, which is fine by me, but Ron soon moves on alone.

We plug away, one revolution at a time, and are compensated at the top with the stunning downhill stretch into El Tuito (45km; 1022m). At first glance we are doubtful that there will be any accommodation in this tiny Mexican village, but a few simple questions later and we are inside a massive room with massive shower area feeling right at home at Hotel Don Juan opposite Don Juan Supermarket.

"Trust is always earned, never given." R. Williams
We wake too early and find ourselves resting on the bed for twenty minutes while night turns into day and we can set wheel to road. Yesterday, a young boy had shown Ali the room and told him it was 300 pesos per night. Ali paid it, thinking it was a little steep, but what choice did we have. The other hotel outside of town was rumoured to be even pricier. No sooner had we unpacked and the young boy was knocking on our door. He had returned with a hundred peso bill in his hand. This has to be a perfect example of how honest Mexicans are and confirms our beliefs that we are paying the local and not an inflated tourist price. In so many other countries of similar culture and lifestyle standard, this honourable act would not have taken place.

Unlike the Mexican people, the roads cannot be trusted. Just when you begin to feel comfortable with the smooth downhill surface, you'll round a curve to fly over a pothole sending you sideways into the air, or worse still come head to head with a tope (speed hump). You usually have warning that these monumental bumps are coming up, but whether you can see the damned thing or not is another question. They are not always painted and in some regions it is clear that the road works department are getting rid of excess bags of cement when the annual topes-repair time comes around.

Road signage is another area of concern. Either the men in the office are working out the distances with pieces of string and pins stuck into a world atlas map, or the guys putting the signs enroute are numerically illiterate. It is not uncommon for one of the larger and newer green boards to indicate that it is 25 kilometres to the next town, when directly following is a small white reflective mileage marker saying that it is 30. The latter signage may be older but it is generally pretty accurate. We take the latest additions to roadside information with a pinch of salt.

A perfect start to a tiring end
The road out of El Tuito is basically downhill for 22 kilometres and what a perfect way to start the day, coasting through the cool morning air, watching the sun paint the clouds tangerine. Thoughts of stopping at Tomatlan are abandoned when we reach the turnoff at 10.30am. We continue on and the overcast sky remains for another 30 minutes before our riding conditions switch from comfortable to sweltering. The trip gets progressively hotter and drier and spontaneous splashes of colour and form add a bit of life to an otherwise boring ride: red bottle-brush shrubs, yellow catci blooms, mexican morning glory, yellow and pink trumpet flower bouquets and a vine with mulberry coloured jube clusters. Also keeping me entertained, though in stark contrast to the delicate blossoms are darkened pods the size and shape of small prickly pumpkins, green bean fossil figures, burst seeds with fibre optic like strands and spiky brown teeth covering the otherwise lifeless branches.

An afternoon breeze adds a little relief, but the last kilometres into Maria Jose Morelos are hard to handle. Even harder is the news that there is no accommodation in this town: only a circus. Fourteen kilometres further on is Punta Perula (101km; 619m), where we stop at the Dutch-Mexican run RV Park - Las Palmas. We still consider 75 pesos per person to be a little excessive for a campsite though the environment is comfortable enough: with a wash-up area, showers and toilets and a bit of shade from the coconut laden palms that the owner proudly declares are the secret of longevity. A glass of young coconut juice a day apparently keeps death at bay. We hear several times that his mother is living proof at 102 years of age.

Follow the green hot chilli peppers
We get chatting with the world touring Girard Family who pulled in late last night and consequently don't actually get on the road until 9.45am. It is already hot as we continue through the state of Jalisco. A billboard notifies us that we are entering a tomato region, and while I don't doubt for a minute that they grow here, we see everything but: mangoes, bananas and acres of golden green chillies. The roadside is also littered with these hot little peppers: all baking their bodies to a mulchy brown. Quite similar to what you see on the Mexican beaches really.

I'm feeling as fit as a fiddle for the first time, but Ali isn't. He complains of a bloated stomach which combined with the extend of today's climbing and the fact he eats nothing but a couple of dry biscuits means his condition just worsens. By the time we are 35 kilometres away from Melaque, we have already traversed 500 odd altimetres, it is a little before 2pm and we still have more hills to struggle with in the hottest part of the day. Fortunately, Ali can just manage to digest the bag of salty crisps and bottle of coke I buy him in Agua Caliente. Unfortunately, the worst of the climbing is yet to come. The following 17 kilometres take us rolling in and out of valleys of sorghum fields neatly interspersed with coconut palms. With each downhill a new range comes into view and spells another ascent ahead.

The last of these hills rises 250m over four kilometres and when we see the descending truck sign, we elatedly believe it is all over. But somehow the terrain doesn't lend itself to a plunging tumble just yet and two kilometres down the track, we find ourselves crunching a further two kilometres up to the 264m peak. Ali is lagging way behind me most of the way, until just before the top when he surges past with a frustration-fuelled determination. It is short lived and I catch up easily enough.

Finally, the five kilometre nosedive towards the coast is our reward and boy is it ever so wonderful to roll, curve; sway and whoosh through the cooling air to the very bottom without really having to touch the brakes. An easy five kilometre stretch of flat highway then leads us directly into Melaque (80km; 957m).

It is 4.30pm as we are pushing our bikes across the sand to the free camping at the end of the beach. There are no facilities: they are still under construction and little shade apart from a few palapas. Ali is feeling too sick to be roughing it tonight so we head towards the other campsite we had heard about. Sadly, they want 240 pesos for a plot, which is the price of a cheap double in a Posada. It is not a hard choice to make and the first place we come to, we settle for, though in hindsight, the room for 250 pesos at Posada Clemens is a total dump and maybe we should have looked just a little further.

Don't feel at home
While Ali rests up for a couple of days, I wander round and get to know the town a bit. It is a strange melting pot. Another top tourist beach for North Americans to burn their skin some more and Mexicans to frolic around fully clothed in the ocean. The Americans and Canadians don't have to travel too far to find the local gringo supermarket selling boxes of their favourite cereal, bottles of ranch dressing and maple syrup or cans of baked beans. The same local packet of muesli is 6 pesos more expensive than in the local pharmacy two paces around the corner and the staff are total snobs, unless of course they know you. Then they'll joke and laugh and make you fell right at home. I am treated like I have the bubonic plague and I'm still kicking myself that I didn't walk a few blocks back into the heart of Mexican Melaque and spend my money there instead. They are definitely friendlier, have fresher and better produce, are cheaper by a third of the price and don't fill their shelves with typical American and Canadian crap.

The tourist strip is filled with stalls overstocked in dangly coconut lanterns, ornate ceramic wash basins, rubber flip-flops, blow up tubes, cheap goggles, snorkels and hideously kitsch shell ornaments. Beyond that the crumbling architecture, disarray and colourful wall washes paints an entirely different picture of Melaque. Though I get the feeling that gringos are only just tolerated in these Mexican zones. Either way, I just don't feel at home anywhere really.

Much better thank you very much
Melaque to Zihuatanejo (6 cycle days; 532km; 4336m)

Melaque to Manzanillo (64 km; 268 m)
Manzanillo to Cerro de Ortega (88 km; 157 m)
Cerro de Ortega to Maruata (89 km; 981 m)
Maruata to Caleta de Campos (107 km; 1600 m)
Caleta de Campos to Guacamayas (72 km; 588 m)
Guacamayas to Zihuatanejo (113 km; 742 m)

Today is definitely the easiest ride we've had in a while. Not only is the terrain surprisingly flat but the road after Cihuatlan and just before our destination, newly laid asphalt with a wide shoulder to swing the bike around in. Like a couple of kids in a bouncy castle for the first time, we do just that. Visions of mist covered coconut and banana palms sharing the same acreage are pretty much the only scenery available for miles. It is ever so reminiscent of Thailand.

What a load of rubbish
The rubbish must also get a mention today, because it is not only in shocking proportions, but the stench flavours the air for the first 20 kilometres, after which it dissolves into the atmosphere, or we get used to it: one of the two. The cause of this putrid aroma is the massive dumping ground about 10 kilometres out of Melaque, which also seems to give everyone the go ahead to chuck whatever they want on the side of the road leading up to and away from the immediate area.

II know, here I am again raving on about this issue, but I don't understand why everyone doesn't feel the same way as I do about our planet. It is way too beautiful to spoil by blatant apathy. And I don't need to hear any Paul Theroux twaddle about these people not understanding how to dispose of waste, because they used to cook food in banana leaves and corn husks. We are not talking about illiterate natives running around in loincloths spearing the evening's supper with a primitive flint here. What we have is a population that has adjusted effortlessly to baseball caps, monster 4x4's, frappacinos and KFC. And sure, I appreciate that not only the average Mexican's laziness to walk a couple of paces and dispose of their trash in the designated spot plays a role, but a government who considers dishing out free viagra pills to impotent men over 70, before investing in a feasible infrastructure for rubbish collection and removal, seriously needs to get their priorities right too.

Reaching the Miramar malecon after 44 kilometres is the start of the tourism zone. On this beach, it costs 80 pesos for an umbrella, four chairs and table. It is not yet busy, but it is still way before lunch and Mexico hasn't woken up properly. The next 20 kilometres into Manzanillo (64km; 268m), takes us past the rather unattractive port, along the busy highway full of traffic lights and impatient bus drivers and into a miniature version of Puerto Vallarta.

On first appearances, Hotel Azteca Centro in the old town and opposite the food market looks luxourious for 250 pesos and compared to what we've been used to, but turns out to be an itsy-bitsy sweat box, though the bed is very hard and very comfortable. Okay for one night.

A little help from the cops
A big ball of orange rises up over the cliffs as we weave our way around the backstreets of the electricity plant and out onto the pancake flat and ever so boring toll road (cuota). Even though we have a shoulder to use, we decide to break free at Cuyutlan. There is not much here in this village, but it does manage to harbour two hotels. and we later find out that Ron ended up staying here for one night. We however are just stopping for some cold water, a cucumber and a tomato.

The next township of Tecoman is surprisingly large, not at all touristy and I like the feel of the place: a genuine hustle and bustle of average Mexican life. Thirty odd kilometres down the road is Cerro de Ortega (88km; 157m), where Ali guesses, due to its dot size on our map, a hotel lies. At the end of town, we stop and ask at the police station if there is any accommodation. It is closing in on 4pm and somehow they must have sensed that I don't fancy having to go any further. Without us asking, the officer in charge immediately picks up the phone and calls his boss. We are offered a spot at the back of the station and the use of their modest bucket shower and toilet facilities. There are handshakes all round as we accept the humble lodgings offer graciously.

The resident supermarket is a total pigsty and while the staff/owners chat contently with each other behind a highly disorganised cash register, I sift through the rotten vegetables and fruit to find something half decent to eat. Broken packets of pasta spill their contents over understocked shelves, tomatoes and shrivelled lettuce leaves decorate the aisle floors and I am amazed that these people manage to stay in business. I get what I need, not before carefully checking the used-by dates and get the hell out of there.

Sleeping safely outside, under the mosquito net is a perfect arrangement for the hot balmy night and we both wake feeling refreshed and ready for the day's cycle to the beach. Another misty morning as we bounce back over the cobbled streets: past the church mural and the red roofed steeple; past young girls sweeping the dust away from blue and green painted houses; past white bloused children walking slowly to school; past the dirty local supermarket; and up onto the dusty, busy highway.

Stunning coastlines
At eye level we shoot by the tops of thousands of banana palms oozing orange sunlit fog from between their leaves. The road is pretty much flat for the first 25 kilometres leading into San Juan de Alima and this is the last decent place to buy supplies before you hit Caleta de Campos approximately 250 kilometres further on. There is a local morning market, which we captured in Tizupan the following day (Tuesday), that moves from village to village along this desolate stretch.

There is an abundance of hotels to choose from in San Juan de Alima, but about 10 kilometres south of the town at kilometre 196 on Highway 200, Ron Pasquini recommended the peaceful Rancho Buganvilias RV Park to us: 100 pesos per night with shower and free wireless on a relaxing deck overlooking the pacific. Getting there from the town begins with a 4 kilometre climb and luckily for us the sun hasn't yet peeked over the rocky ridge on our left, so we reach the top cycling almost exclusively in the shade. The view of never-ending miles of white sandy beach is stunning and similar to Oregon and Californian coastal scenery. I immediately miss the companionship of Jim, Ben, Jeff, and Brian. Would be so nice to have them along for this ride. As the day goes on, the scenery gets even more beautiful as tropical growth butts directly onto extended beach stretches with layers of white capped waves just as long in length.

It is hot climbing up and down all day and besides marvelously quiet roads, the only other real difference from our US Pacific Coast trip. By 10am the sun is at 45 degrees and beating down on us; at 11am almost directly above and we feel like a couple of fried eggs spitting and spluttering in a pool of oily sweat. The cool spirals downhill are the most divine reprieve from hard work you could ever imagine. We just love 'em.

At a lunch break by a poorly stocked abarrotes, we see three touring cyclists coming up the hill towards us. They don't stop, but a few kilometres further on, we meet up again as they are resting under the palapa of an abandoned food stall. We stop. They are Jackie, Jason and Parker, all doing doing different trips, but travelling together at the moment. It doesn't surprise me one bit when we learn that Jason had applied for the going south project and also wasn't successful. Wouldn't catch me unawares, if we bump into the the two that did get the job. After all, we'll be travelling the same route. The guys are refreshing to talk to. They have had quite some trouble with their bikes, but that doesn't stop them from zooming past us later on. Man can they move out.

A few kilometres from Maruata (89km; 981m) the French Girard Family pass us as well. The first noticeable building in this town is a monster modern hospital, which apparently services around 20,000 locals in the region. You would think this might set the trend for the rest of the place, but Maruata is just a small village with many insignificant grocery stores stocked with nothing but a few tinned goods and bags of crisps. There was not a tortilla in sight. Ali bought the last two 5L bottles of water in town from a shop that is now left with only toilet paper on the shelves. Either the beach had been hit by a storm of tourists who had cleaned them out or these people aren't really interested in making any money.

As with everywhere along the coast, it costs 25 pesos per person to camp under the palapa of a beach restaurant. It is a gorgeous beach with quite a swell and a dumper wave right at the edge of shore. Lots of stray dogs having a tonne of fun and only a handful of stray tourists relaxing the afternoon away. It is a peaceful spot to put the tent up for the night. The little turtle that buries its way out from under our tent in the evening and heads towards the light and not the ocean obviously thought so too. I take him down to the waters edge where he happily gets back en route.

Nothing for miles
Our supplies are alarmingly low as we set off today, but figure there has got to be somewhere along the way to stock up. During the first half of the day, there is absolutely sod all. It is the most desolate stretch of coastline we have encountered so far and also drop dead stunning as well. Though there are no other words for the cycling environment other than relentless hard climbing. Yesterday, I was thinking that the biking was slightly easier than in the US, but as I'm tossing this idea around in my head in the early morning, we hit a long 10% climb that quickly changes my mind and shapes the ride for the rest of the day.

Before lunchtime, we catch enough glimpses of the great ocean cliffs and rolling sandy surf, but then we make that left turn which sends us even higher up and further into dryness. Just before hitting Tizupan, we come across a hummingbird in the middle of the road. You could see his little heart was almost pounding out of his feathered breast. I cover him from the sun and give him some water which he guzzles down. It doesn't look as if he had broken anything and it may just have been shock from a slight knock. After he has calmed down a bit, we set him up under a bush in a comfy little paper nest with a tray of honey-water and hope he gets strong enough to get away before the local iguana comes along.

Luckily at Tizupan the local market is in full swing and a small grocery store has some goods which are not mouldy or stale. I stock up on fresh fruit, veggies and tortillas, but only enough for 1½ days. Anymore and the fresh produce will perish. By this stage, we have already traversed 850 altimetres over 45 kilometres, which is marked as 31 kilometres on our map. Locals are telling us it is another 45 kilometres to Caseta de Campos.and downhill all the way. I think we can believe them about as much as our map.

Outside of town is a RV come-bungalow resort and in all honesty, I wish we had stopped there for the evening. The following half of the day is not only boring riding up the incessantly irritating hills only to plummet below to the valley floor and across a white bridge with yellow railings and big wide gaps where the concrete should join only to repeat it all again, but the terrain is neither interesting nor lush. This goes on add nauseum for a couple of hours until 23 kilometres later, we finally pass through Hua Hua and hit the coast once more. Here, they tell us it is 28 kilometres to our destination and as we close in on it, mangoes have replaced the usual papaya trees in the coconut fields and are almost as tall as the palms. Paw paws overloaded with big droopy bosom shaped fruit, have their own plots and the every shade of green region smells moist of tropical aromas.

How far did you say it was?
It is actually 62 kilometres to Caleta de Campos from Tizupan and proves for the zillionth time in our world tour that locals haven't got a clue how far away they are from their own backsides. It is actually one of the worst 62 kilometres I have ever travelled. I'm knackered, exhausted, pissed off, hurting like mad in the saddle and barely able to turn the wheels around. In this mood, everything intensifies: the rubbish is diabolical, the truck drivers arseholes, the decaying animal stench unbearable, the inclines too steep, the potholes painful. The only beauty I see in the last couple of hours is the red cardinal bird flying in front of us in all its vermillion glory. That was special, but the rest I could have done without.

Finally after 8 hours of pretty solid pedalling, we have to climb the last hill before coming to rest at a beach restaurant at Caleta de Campos (107km; 1600m). After standing around staring into space for a while, I begin to feel somewhat normal and can concentrate on the splendor of this quiet little Mexican beach. The town, though not marked on our map, has an ample supply of stores and is the biggest we have seen since San Juan de Alima.

The perfect gear change
Besides the 12% hill out of the beach, today is relatively easy in comparison to yesterday. And that's a good thing really because I probably would have broken down and cried if it was any worse. The inclines are not so long and you get enough speed going down to get yourself pretty high up on the next hill. It is the ideal opportunity to practice the perfect gear changing combination going from your heaviest through to your lightest gear all within a handful of seconds. Amazing what can keep the mind entertained.

The scenery along the coast is once more luscious, green and gorgeous with its long sandy stretches of rolling bubbling surf. I have to say, it is even more stunning than what we have seen in California and Oregon, only because of the tropical nature of the terrain and the remoteness. At the turnoff to Playa Azul, the road heads in the opposite direction and becomes incredibly busy all of a sudden. Drivers are impatient when they were otherwise relaxed. Though there still is a lot of friendly cheering and waving going on from the side lines. From La Mira onwards it is a build up of ugly, dry and dusty dump-yard stretches with way too many mini-buses fighting for space on the road, even when it is simply not necessary. Only have to endure 16 kilometres or so until we reach the outskirts of Guacamayas (72km; 588m): a dynamic little township, big enough to offer a few hotels with rooms at very cheap rates. We hand over 110 pesos for a room with a fan, tv and cold water shower. That's all we need tonight.

A bit flat
Petacalco is just 20 kilometres out of Guacamayas and has a hotel, which might be a better option for evening out the journey lengths over the last two days. But heading this way instead of to Lazaro Cardenas is definitely a much better deal. While there is a small hill to traverse at the beginning of the trip, the downhill coast makes up for it and roads are relatively free of traffic. Our early start sees us at our 85 kilometre point by lunchtime. We choose a spot under a bridge for our midday meal but have to move because it stinks so bad of piss, shit and beer. The rubbish strewn in the countryside is pitiful. We have just one 50m section, where we don't see a discarded plastic bottle. For the rest of the way into the town where Andy Dufresne and Red reunite in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, it is a continuous stream of trash.

Almost to our resting point, there is a kilometre long hill to traverse and it is exceptionally busy with double semis, tourist buses and anything else that is way too big for the narrow windy road. A toll road lies below and apparently there is also a bike path leading all the way to Zihuatanejo (113km; 742xm) if you turn off the highway and head into Ixtapa to join up with it.

The centre of town is easy enough to find as there are signs leading you in the direction at every crossroad. Our first accommodation choice, Angela's Hotel and Hostel is full and our second preference doesn't have a room available for a couple of hours. Aaron from Hotel Bocana is conveniently on the street and offers us a discount on his hotel room, which is unbelievably great. King size bed, hot shower (though you do have to wait a while), and free wifi for only 200 pesos. Ron, who has had no luck with either of the two places he first stays at, ends up here as well. It is conveniently located, quiet and very very comfortable. We sit pretty for a few days making use of the free internet connection and planning the next leg of Mexican Pacific Coast Adventure.

Corner internet café , Puerto Escondido, Mexico, 03-04-09
On the road to Acapulco

Zihuatanejo to Acapulco (3 cycle days; 243 km; 1237m)

Zihuatanejo to Papanoa (85 km; 592 m)
Papanoa to San Jeronimo (73 km; 289 m)
San Jeronimo to Acapulco (86 km; 356 m)

It is great to have had the company of Ron on the few occasions that we meet up. We have to thank internet for that. Our chats over dinner concerning cycle touring most of all, but also consumerism, health-care systems, pensions, the imbedded concept of nine to five drudgery until you retire and then finally getting the chance to do whatever it is you were dreaming of doing one day, are interesting enough but completely one-sided. We really need a couple of wealthy corporate republicans to add some spice to the dinner table. What I really love about Ron is how he gets as worked up about discourteous driving habits with respect to cyclists, as I do. I think we are in the same "do your nanaah" boat when it comes to arsehole drivers. Somehow, even though we have only just met Ron, saying goodbye is like seeing an old friend off. And who knows, his plans are still open to venturing further into Central American, so maybe we'll bump into one another again. Hope so.

Our day passes with not too much ado, other than updating the site, stocking up on a few grocery items and packing the bags ready for the trip to Acapulco.

We are on the road by 7.30am, though it could have been earlier had we not stopped for a quick caffeine fix. I had discovered the local coffee shop, just down from an unusually vibrant mercado, a couple of days ago and for Mexican standards, it dished up a pretty decent brew, but this morning, us being so early and all, I reckon we end up with reheated dregs from yesterday. After a few sips and several disenchanted grimaces, twenty pesos is poured down the sewer-drain and we are back on the bicycles.

The path leading us out of he city is atrociously bad, but at least we can access the service lane for most of the way. Passed the crumbling city outskirts that contrast starkly with the brightly painted tidiness of tourist haven. Further a field, we are blessed with a wide shoulder though that is short lived and we then make the left hand turn that summons us to a familar day of riding close to the white line on a pathetically narrow road.

There are many choices for accommodation in the towns and villages close to Zihuatanejo. San Jeronimito has a hotel, Petatlan is large enough to have at least one as well and has a great plaza: perfect for our first morning break. The ride is hampered a little by the degree of traffic, that luckily enough hovers mostly around the towns. The terrain is not as hilly as we have been used to, but not what you would call flat either. Still we make good time today, unlike the unhelmeted motorcyclist, lying dead in a pool of his own blood and surrounded by police and rather shocked onlookers, just outside Joluchuca.

The rest of the cycling is no where near as eventful, with only a few glimpses of the same long sandy stretches of coastline so renowned in this area. A salt flat emerges out of nowhere and the surrounding villages are lined with stalls selling big bags of the stuff as well as colourful coconut lollies and oil. As we further our distance from Zihuatanejo, it is noticeable how little stock is on the store's shelves. The only fruit and vegetable shop we spy is in Coyuguilla, 10 kilometres from Papanoa Ojo de Agua (85kms; 592m) where we stop for the night. Ali read somewhere that the second playa a few hundred metres south of the actual town is the nicest spot, so we ask to spend the night at restaurant Las Hamacas. Only after the dictionary has come out of the panniers, do we understand that if we eat or drink something, then we don't have to pay for camping. Not that Ali really needed the go ahead to knock back a few beers on this sunny afternoon while resting in the hammock after an invigorating swim in the ocean. I just nod off to sleep. It's all too relaxing.

Packing everything up from camping takes us a lot longer than when we stay in a hotel, so we hit the road a little later than normal today. The first couple of hours on the road are quite scenic as everything remains green and tropical. Initially, a couple of long stretches take us directly along the shoreline: always delightful to ride next to pounding surf, a cool sea breeze and the smell of sun roasting salt. Winding in and out of vast expanses of farmland it amazes me just how compatible the unpretentious coconut is: sharing fields with just about anything. So far on our trip, they have been calculatedly punctuated amongst plantations of bananas, mangos or papaya, but today they contently share their pastures with grazing cows.

The road is in great condition and we are also grateful for the added bonus of a cuota (toll) section that cuts out close to 8 kilometres and bypasses the township of Tecpan de Galeana. Thereafter, road works begin in preparation of a wider highway and possibly even a dual carriage way in sections. It will be a cyclists dream ride when that happens. At the moment there is no shoulder at all, though a smooth, flat and dead straight pedal see us following the signs at the turnoff to the San Jeronimo (73km; 289m) centro well before 1pm. It is big enough to house three hotels, all clearly signposted as you head down the main drag towards the plaza.

Not much shop
We end up in Hotel El Coloso, simply because there is no-one next door to compare prices with and the accommodation across the road only has air-conditioned rooms. A cement wall partitioning off a calc encrusted shower nozzle and seatless toilet creates a square sleeping area within the cement rectangular block. Not deviating from the basic building trends a cement floor and ceiling hail to a jail cell ambience. Decoration comes in the form of star shaped besa bricks near the roof which also act as ventilation. Screens are not part of the deal which means free-loading bugs happily share our living space too. Luckily they can't land on us since the fan creates enough turbulence. It also drones with a wobble. Year in and year out they cover the walls with another shaded wash and year in and year out it peels off in sections, bubbles in others, leaving a scabby patchwork of faded colour. Begrudgingly, we see no other option really than to pay the 160 pesos (8 euros) for yet another dismal hovel. In Thailand, you wouldn't part with more than 150 baht (3 euros) for something as gloomy.

Finding a decent shop is just as much of a task. An older generation of men and women line one street with fresh fruit and vegetables; most likely from their own plots owing to the minimal quantities on display and the worn-torn appearance of their hands. I purchase from two prospective sellers, the last old lady making up her prices as she goes and me having to add them up for her. I really don't mind parting with a few extra peso's for this woman. She looks like she has earned it. A couple of mini-supers with more snack food than anything of substance are interspersed between paint, industry and home and garden shops. I stumble upon what appears to be the one and only supermarket with the first aisle dedicated entirely to toilet paper and polystyrene food packaging; the next to cleaning products; another to the tinned jalapeno chilli; leaving just one over for everything else. I don't find what I want and drastically change the dinner menu to suit what is available. Thank goodness for La Sierra refried beans.

Mexico:A little bit hit and miss
As far as accommodation is concerned, it is totally hit and miss in Mexico. While hotel owners are required by law to display their prices at reception, these are more often than not outrageously high and you never end up paying these rates anyway. There doesn't seem to be any standardisation. One day you'll pay 200 pesos for something fabulous and bordering on modern and the next you are in the dump from hell for the same price. Whatever the case may be, accommodation is still expensive in Mexico for the standard you get and considering the local cost of living. More often than not the rooms we have stayed in would even put Lawrence Bowen's creative flamboyance of Changing Rooms fame to the ultimate test. I do like the idea of recycling, but am not particularly fond of sleeping on a mattress that looks and feels like it has been hauled off the local junk-yard.

The countryside is also hit and miss. Two months ago I wrote "Mexico can blow its own trumpet for being home to 10-12% of the world's bio-diversity. It boasts the most species of reptiles and ranks in the top five countries for its collection of mammals, amphibians and flora. So, for a couple of slow-moving cyclists, that means some pretty exciting viewing". Now while we have seen some gorgeous coastline, slept on some stunning beaches and as we start heading inland, I'm sure we'll see some more of the natural beauty Mexico has on offer, it has one overall monster downer: the rubbish. As far as I can tell after four months, Mexicans are either forced to or blatantly treat their country as one huge dumping ground. So contrary to what we first thought, the viewing is far from exciting.

Shopping outside of the cities is also an arbitrary undertaking. In our experience, if you see a fruit and veggie shop after not seeing one for miles, stop and buy what you need. It may be you only chance for fresh produce for another 50 kilometres. Sometimes you'll happen upon a moving market. Again, this is gift horse stuff, so if you want to fill your mouths at dinner time, stock up. So many of the little village stores have shelves, but no supplies. What they do have on offer: fizzy drinks; cakes and biscuits; chips; and tinned foods with little nutritional value. A local shop we stop at in Consuelito doesn't even sell water. The shop owner has plenty of Coca-Cola and Fanta bottles though. There is no problem for us to fill our empties up from his own potable supply. For the rest, the shelves are skint and the only fresh produce on offer today is a little pile of overripe tomatoes, wrinkled peppers and soften garlic cloves on an otherwise bare wooden table.

Beauty after a hideous ride
Our rather loopy hotel owner warns us to be careful on the roads today as we leave just before 7.30 am. And it is a frustrating ride with no or hardly any shoulder the whole way; uncomfortably potholed and busy around any of the townships we pass through. The actual riding element is dead easy and by 8.30am we have done 22 kilometres. There are plenty of accommodation opportunities in the form of bungalows, hotels and beaches should you want to stay along this stretch of coastline. A couple of small hills get us sweating in a more than usually hot morning sun and green countryside interchanges with dry dusty villages where today's farmyard animal is the pig. I expect these scavenging beasts have free range here to help digest the roadside rubbish. Pity scientists haven't come up with a pig clone partial to pet-bottles. Mexico's plastic problem would be solved: the world's for that matter.

This component of today's journey is the the most pitiful thing we have seen so far and even though I am unsure of how it happens, it heightens as we near the city. Shabby shanty towns with garbage stinking atmospheres edge the road from 10 kilometres before the city outskirts. A mammoth climb needs more than just pedal power before the correspondingly steep drop into Acapulco (86km; 356m). The road is in diabolical condition, the trucks, the buses, the cars all crawling at a snails pace, grinding like us in their bottom gears. Only difference is while we profusely sweat, they billow out black clouds of toxic vapours. The beauty of the rugged coastline below hardly registers because the piles of rotting debris takes precedence. On a positive note, they are in the midst of fixing the road up and when it is finished pedalling up the hill will be a lot easier.

Getting into town isn't a problem, except for the usual erratic behaviour of busses and we end up roughly in the direction we want to be. Our intentions are to stay at Hotel Queen Merry, but we spy a couple of places before reaching this destination. Hotel Del Angel's going rate is 300 pesos which is too expensive for us, but the overly frolic lady comes running out to offer us a room with just a fan and the added catch of five flights of stairs up. Going up to view the room is almost harder than cycling the hill into this city, but worth every step. We have a panoramic view over the bay and back into the layers of Acapulco's crumbling array of hillside buildings. The ride over the hill; the potholes; the rubbish; the fumes; the traffic; the ramshackle structures; and I'm immediately thinking: Kathmandu, Nepal.

The alarm goes off at 6am as per usual the next morning, but I have no intention of moving. Doesn't take much to convince Ali that we shouldn't give up the opportunity to stargaze at the magnificent view over Acapulco from our rooftop room for another 24 hours. Ali does some computer work while I busy myself with the backlog of sewing chores in between snapping a new angle or different light as the sun moves across the Acapulco Bay.

A bit too much of the same
Acapulco to San Jose del Progreso (4 cycle days; 344kms; 2686m)

Acapulco to San Marcos (83 km; 635 m)
San Marcos to Marquelia (80 km; 436 m)
Marquelia to Cuajinicuilapa (65 km; 476 m)
Cuajinicuilapa to San José del Progreso (116 km; 1139 m)

Technically, leaving Acapulco is relatively easy. Just follow the main strip out of town, leaving behind the party animal haunts with names like Squid Roe and Drink to Go and sidewalks overflowing with last night's drinking and eating debris. The hard bit begins as you pass by the military camp: almost 5 kilometres of continual climbing, though fortunately on double lanes both ways. Well before we are halfway up, I stop to catch my breath and catch another spectacular angle of the bay. Ali optimistically announces that the climb is almost over. I'm completely baffled as to why he says this. We had seen the path from our hotel balcony and we are nowhere near the top yet. Anyway, another 3.3 kilometres later and we do finally reach the top and I am not only appreciative of the fact the climb has ended but also of the road workers' efforts. It must have been mayhem considering some of the cambers on the turns and the amount of traffic before renovations were undertaken. It's a non-stop coast down the other side with magical views. According to Ali, I should be cycling, not looking. Boy, we are not having a good start to the day.

The southern side of Acapulco is a total turn about after our experiences of entering the city from the north. Condo after condo, in varying degrees of completeness, line the coast. An unusable bike lane also runs the same length, as does a grassy median strip spaced with purposefully planted palms. Billboards advertising the ultimate resort with ultimate ocean views exclusively for those who can ultimately afford the luxury the smiley models are suggestively proposing. I can't tell if any of it is true or not, because an ugly grey corrugated construction fences the whole lot in from public view. What you can see of the other side of the road is a vast dusty nothingness with the occasional abandoned shanty home.

There is relatively little traffic on the double lane road, which ends at exactly the same spot as the condos do. Once again we are back on the true Mexican Highway. The next 10 kilometres into Barra Vieja is not in good repair and we weave our way around the missing road bits. Just before the town the restaurants start all with similar names of El Cabana del Whatever. Children stand at the dirt entrances of bottle littered driveways, menu's in hand, beckoning you to turnoff towards the palm constructed umbrella concealing a swimming pool, deck chairs, comfort, coolness, food, drink and pampering from the reality of the outside world. We ride on.

The road remains flat along this coastal stretch. Restaurant, shop and boat owners are all getting ready for Semana Santa (Holy Week) in the second week of April. While the sprawling palapas are now deserted and the brightly coloured swimming costumes seem ludicrous in this vacant, out of the way place, in a couple of weeks the scene will be entirely different. The beach will be crawling with tourists, shops overrun with children demanding a blow-up dolphin, hungry families feasting on seafood delights in overcrowded restaurants with owners wondering whether they have enough Coronas to last the demand. Accommodation prices double and you'll be lucky to even find yourself a spot on the beach to pitch your tent. If you do, you'll pay the worth of a basic hotel room for the privilege. The seashore will be covered from roadside to high tide line. In all honesty, we have now seen enough of the coastal way of life, it is all beginning to feel pretty much a repetition of what we have already seen. It stands to reason, we won't be hanging around for the festivities and intend to head inland.

Imaginations run wild
Today, we take a similar turn and immediately the climbing starts. There is a thick luscious belt of green clinging to Mexico's Pacific coast but as soon as you turn inland the plant life becomes grey-brown and crispy within a kilometre or so. I'm sure as you head even further in it becomes green again, but at the moment we remain pedalling up and down rolling, dusty, dry hills. San Marcos (83km; 635m) comes soon enough, though we could have done without the crappy standard of hotels for 200 pesos per night. We choose Hotel El Castillo, the less dodgy of the two: with peeling paint, dirty old shower, mouldy tiles, stinking drains, archaic furniture, no screens; and those infamous Mexican style pillows filled with lumpy cardboard mulch. What we do have is cable tv and it is becoming blatantly obvious that this is an important accessory to the Mexican livelihood.

Oddly, San Marcos has a very large bike shop, but it is shut when we arrive and unfortunately remains that way for the length of our stay. Further to that, there is one fruit and veggie shop; a tonne of miscelanea stores, all selling the same snack items and soft drinks; plenty of plastic goods and takeaway packaging on sale; as well as pan sellers, their baskets brimming with Mexican pastries and sweet breads. Everything looks appetising enough, but they haven't quite got the art of making a moist piece of cake. One mouthful in and you are gagging for the water bottle. Still, dry or not, it is a reprieve from the constant diet of tortillas. The rest of the township is much like any other along Highway 200 with a blend of imaginatively named establishments covering all facets of the shopping culture: Tortelleria Patty, Panaderia Dianne, Carneceria Ivan; Dulceria Julie, Palateria Mary; Mini super Lucy, Restaurant Edith, Deposito David; Taller de Mecanico Billy.

Something decent for a change
We leave our disgusting little stinky room as quickly as we can in the morning after a breakfast of leftover fruit salad from the night before and a couple of tortillas filled with avocado, tomato and cucumber. Ali makes a decent cup of coffee and we are set to roll. Road is really bad to start with and though it looks as though they are doing repairs to it, it is bewildering as to when it might actually happen. By the amount of weeds growing, the initial grading has been left for quite a number of months.

We pass through lots of little villages and towns today. Some have obviously been partying all night long as the stench of beer steams up from the asphalt scattered with broken glass. Discarded paper rosette streamers lie in drying mud and plastic chairs stacked twenty high randomly are placed in an open field waiting to move on to the next festivity. Others spots have a multitude of hotels to choose from as well, which means you don't have to stop in sub-standard conditions as we did last night. After Las Vigas (22 kms); Cruz Grande (39 kms); Copola (60 kms); and Las Salinas (75kms) all have somewhere to spend the night. The ride today is initially flat, followed by a windy path with a few hills and then flat again all the way to Marquelia (80km; 436m).

As well as a full compliment of shopping facilities, there are also several accommodation choices and for the same price as last night we get something on the other end of the scale. We love the big clean room with white fluffy towels, soap, shampoo and bottled water on first appearances that we look no further than Hotel Grecia.

There is a transition in the landscape and we fly past lakes for the first time, over small hills, along green paddocks with corn, hay and dotted with coconut trees of course. The road stops don't smell as much and the greener environment is a welcomed surprise. It makes all the difference to your frame of mind. The cycling terrain is about the same as any of the last few days: a couple of hills; lots of flat bits; no shoulder; and a few scary moments. The people seem more solemn in Guerrero state for some reason. Cuajinicuilapa (65km; 476m) is easy to get to and we are there just after lunchtime, but the town doesn't have the same ambience we are used to; prices are several pesos more expensive and I'm not getting the familiar Mexican smile when I walk into each business; something I have to do a lot in this town, before I manage to obtain everything I want. The lady in the mini super next door to Hotel Marin clearly isn't enjoying herself at all. Our accommodation price is easily dropped from 250 to 200 pesos. It is simple, semi-atmospheric, but above all clean and tidy.

Another month passed
The pancake flat beginning to the day through desolate ranch land doesn't have a good feel to it. Doesn't help when a taxi van descends upon us toots way too long and comes way too close to us, as if to say: get off the road you bloody cyclists! I'm not impressed. Rubbish in mass proportion again: plastic bottle after plastic bottle, nappy after nappy; wrapper after wrapper. Of course there are no glass bottles or cans: you get money for those, which proves that deposit recycling really works! We cross the Oaxaca frontier early on and the road gets a little smoother, though there is still no shoulder to speak of. Villages are quaint with their dust swept front paddocks bordered by wire and tree branch fences, white washed walls with rainbow graffiti; braying donkeys and gobbling turkeys. Unfortunately, it is nothing new and it is all becoming a blur of sameness.

Twenty odd kilometres into the ride and we have to traverse our first hill. It isn't steep, but long enough to worth mentioning. The small workout is rewarded with a similar downhill binge and then it is pretty much an easy, fast ride until Santiago Pinotepa Nacional. Compared to what we have seen for a while, this large city with a steep and badly surfaced road leading into town is madly chaotic. The plummet out of town and across the valley bridge is just as intense. From here on, apart from a small drop in altitude after the first hill, it is continual ascend until Santiago Jamitepec (485m). It is possible to stop here as there are enough hotels to choose from, but Ali assures me it is a descent all the way to the next town. He is not far from wrong: it is an 11 kilometre zigzag nose-dive into green lake pastures and a beautiful contrast to the dusty beginnings of today's journey. We meet Gabriel from Quebec going up as we are flying down.

In San Jose del Progresso (116km; 1139m) there is not much on offer as far as stores are concerned, so our dinner comprises of pasta, a tin of mixed vegtetables, a tin of corn, and a jar of tomato salsa with a couple of spoonfuls of mayonnaise for a bit of creaminess. Ali declares his amazement with what I can make taste good. It is all right considering; a bit like our little box room at Hotel and Restaurant Los Cactus with fan, Sky tv and chatty parrot outside the room for the customary 200 pesos.

Another end of the month, another write-up and another reflection on what we have experienced. While the coastal views and marvelous beaches have been enjoyable, the tourist towns overtaking this region were highly disappointing. The smaller, out of the way seaside restaurants and the little villages in between offer far more intrigue for us. The thought of new cultural influences and some decent mountain climbing are very welcoming ideas indeed as we plan the inland route of our Mexican bike tour. One thing we desperately hope for is that the rubbish situation is going to change for a more greener and pleasant view from the saddle.

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