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On the road . April 2009 . Mexico

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SpeedServer Internet Cafe, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, 18-04-09
San José del Progreso to San Cristóbal de las Casas (10 cycle days; 3 rest days; 717km; 7591m)
San José del Progreso to Puerto Escondido (85 km; 340 m)
Puerto Escondido to San Pedro Pochutla (72 km; 591 m)
San Pedro Pochutla to Santiago Astata (113 km; 1405 m)
Santiago Astata to Salina Cruz (74 km; 903 m)
Salina Cruz to Juchitan de Zaragoza* (36 km; 100 m)
Juchitan de Zaragoza to Niltepec (53 km; 124 m)
Niltepec to Tapanatepec (53 km; 199 m)
Tapanatepec to Cintalapa (81 km; 1293 m)
Cintalapa to Chiapa de Corzo (97 km; 800 m)
Chiapa de Corzo to San Cristóbal de las Casas (53 km; 1836 m)

You say goodbye and I say hello!
April the first and for some reason today feels like a new day. Green farmland spreads for miles though the crops haven't changed much from what we have seen before. Mostly papaya, mangoes, bananas, coconuts, plenty of cattle, braying donkeys, snorting pigs and gobbling turkeys too. The morning air is cool even though the sun is very hot. This has to be the best time to cycle. Even if there is no breeze, riding creates enough air flow to lose that balmy feeling. Birds are more active: twittering and chirping in unison. Black throated jays follow us protecting their territories with threatening gurgles. They are our only companions on the road. It is still very quiet.

I think about the birds a lot today, they are such an entertaining addition to our daily travel and Mexico has an abundant supply of them in all the colours of the rainbow. I'm a bit annoyed that we haven't stopped to take a photo of any of the Roseate Spoonbills we have seen so far on the trip. In all honesty, I thought there would be more opportunities, but none have arisen recently. That is until I see one rising into flight above the lagoon in front of us about half way through the day. It is so pink that I turn twice to get more of this beautiful vision. Wrong move as my wheel gets caught in the ditch and the next thing I know I'm sprawled across the highway. Not a good position to be in, but there was no traffic at the time and no real damage except a sore body for a few days.

Ten kilometres out of San Jose del Progreso, the township of Santa Rosa de Lima has a hotel and there are more than enough opportunities along the way to stop for the night, as we continue on through to Rio Grande. A flat journey today with one slight incline to navigate over an hour into the trip and no other obstacles apart from a couple of bumps to contend with when we are 35 kilometres from our destination. Villages line our path, many selling local wares, principally the usual fruit but also nopalas (cactus) and tamarind. A whole coconut sells for as little as 2.5 pesos but in the more touristy areas will set you back 6 pesos (Currently, that is approx 14-35 € cents)

There is a friendly feel about today and men on horseback in full cowboy attire, farmers and road workers with long sharp machetes, stop to wave and say goodbye as we say hello. I still haven't quite got used to seeing people wandering around with massive knifes in their hands.

An easy and much cleaner ride through Parque Nacional Lagunas de Chacahu and into Puerto Escondido (85km; 340m). We arrive by 1pm so plenty of time to look around. The recommendations in Let's Go lead us directly to the gringo content of the town and where accommodation is very expensive. Budget travellers heading south should turn left into the town centre when looking for somewhere to stay. It's away from the beach, but is more authentically Mexican. Ali comes away from the first hotel a little pissed off at the arrogance of the hotel owner who won't budge any further than the still whopping 330 pesos for his 375 peso per night room. So when the young girl at Hostal Puerto Escondido, next door says 70 pesos each for a basic room with bathroom and the use of a kitchen, he jumps at it.

It is the typical Mexican washed cement block formation: concrete bed base; concrete bedside table; concrete shelves; concrete shower partition. The only part of the structure that isn't concrete is the door: it is metal. So, yes simple, but clean and ample for what we need for a few days. There is no plan to stay any longer than that, because by then the price will have doubled to 140 peso's each, the place will be swarming with tourists and the Semana Santa festivities will have begun. We do not want to be around when that transformation takes place. These places are bad enough in the low season.

One good thing to come out of tourism in these regions is that the beaches and surrounding areas get regularly cleaned up. Gina at the info-booth, known in gringo-town as the goddess of tourist information says the reason the state of Oaxaca is cleaner, than say Guerrero, is because the people are poorer and don't use as many processed and manufactured goods. She also blames the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for all the rubbish in Mexico. Wow, that's a nice and easy explanation. Fact is, Gina probably hasn't wandered much further than the area she is in, which is bordered by National Parks where people are paid to keep the trash to a minimum. Step any further a field and Oaxaca is no different than anywhere else in Mexico. I'll leave her simplistic views over NAFTA for another debate.

Going Round in Circles?
The gentle rolling hills at the beginning of the day have enough flat sections to get a steady pedal rhythm going in the fastest gear. It is busy getting out of Puedo Escondido due to thirty kilometres of irrational roadworks. It is quite incomprehensible, the methodology behind the road building techniques here. Can't remember if it was today or yesterday, but we pass once again through San Francisco. We have done this so many times now, it feels like we are going round in circles. The landscape certainly doesn't lend itself to thinking that we are passing through anything remotely different. Last 25 kilometres becomes a little more hilly than the earlier gentle inclines but we still make it easily into San Pedro Pochutla (72km; 591m) before 1pm.

We have been trying to stop as early as possible of late, because the heat really hits after lunchtime and makes cycling quite a sweaty chore. This way we have plenty of time over to do other things as well. An itsy bitsy hotel room for 220 peso with tv awaits us. The town is pleasant, but not much bigger than our accommodation. People are friendly and there are enough shopping facilities to obtain everything we need.

Here we go again!
Our room was really so small that we are both glad to get out of it in the morning. Fresh cool air at 7.30am in the morning. It's a bit of an obstacle course getting out over the patchwork repairs on the road. The rolling hills start. Seems easy enough in the beginning and going down gets you almost to the top of the next hill. Then the first major climb hits us by surprise. The usual decline didn't eventuate and we keep ascending to 167m: the highest point of the day. Even at this low altitude we still manage to accumulate 1400 odd altimetres. it's nothing short of an 'all day long' roller coaster ride between 50 and 150m. Towards the end of the day, the ups are long enough to become quite irritating. All we can do to lighten the laborious task every time we get to the top and spy the next hill is yell out: "Here we go again!"

Climbing is hard work, but neither of us mind if there is some sort of reward for it, but there is nothing at all spectacular about this landscape. Brown and dry most of the time with very few villages and even then they are not particularly interesting anymore. People are still really friendly though and thankfully the traffic is at a minimum. until you get near a larger town. By 11am we have erased nearly 50 kilometres from today's expedition and we stop for lunch under the shade of palms on the greenest, softest grass you can imagine. It is not at all normal to have something so lush, nor so clean along this path, so we don't give up the chance the lounge around in comfort for our lunch break. It is a triangular median strip marking the entrance to Tangolunda complete with Golf Course. The municipal water truck, that keeps this patch in such brilliant colour comes by as we are feasting on a few tortillas and biscuits, to soak the ground and keep the out of place lawn in tip-top condition.

What's the real price?
The only place around here with accommodation matching 400 pesos per night is Santa Cruz. Well actually it is more like a village. For the rest of this strip you'll have to content with five-star resorts. Judging by the green grass here, it does comes at a price. It all seems so unfair when we have just ridden through a tiny community where the residents are wallowing in their own rubbish, housing is nothing more than a shack with palm leaf thatched roofs and it looks as if the sewerage is running directly into the local creek. And here we are watching the Mexican government spending money on such frivolous extras. The more I travel, the more confused I become about the human race. I set out thinking I would get some answers, but instead I am asking more questions than I can answer at this stage.

We had been warned that people would be on the road for Semana Santa (Eatser holidays) as early as today (Sunday 4th) and sure enough: late afternoon and the cars overflowing with families, suitcases, backpacks and cool-boxes are heading in the opposite direction to us along with buses packed to the hilt with holiday makers. We count at least six double semi Coca Cola trucks that pass us on their way to stock up the fridges in the resorts for this crazy two week period ahead. Boy, are we both glad to be getting out of there and it is a good thing that the traffic subsided after the turnoff to Tangolunda because the highway becomes narrow, winding and undulating with many blind corners.

Something to say about a warm meal each day
At El Coyul, after 93 kilometres of torturous up and downs, the road finally decides to level off. There is no accommodation that we can see, so opt to continue on a further 20kms. A massive mountain in front of us means we either have to turn left and head up a killer incline or we cut our path along the base. Luck is on our side and it is the latter choice. Can't get into Santiago Astata (113km; 1405m) quick enough, after learning three kilometres before in a village whose name neither of us can remember, that is is not far. Obviously too tired to notice or care for details at that time of day. Hotel Paris is quite alright. It costs the magical 200 pesos and I'm sure someone must have spread the word around Mexico that a double room in a hotel should be this price regardless of facilities.

As far as stores are concerned it is slim pickings in the mini-super across the road, but I manage to rustle up enough tinned goods together with the odd carrot and some left over cabbage to cook up a reasonable pasta dish, which we do in the room. We have just resorted to cooking inside, something we have never done before on our trip, but otherwise as vegetarians in 'carne'-country, we have to resort to cold dinners every night. And we both agree we would never be able to survive on a 'raw food' diet. Definitely has to be something said about a warm meal at the end of a hard days exercise.

A storm brews
The consolation of doing so much yesterday means today should be relatively easy and the day couldn't have started off any better. Cool highway breeze with long flat valleys surrounded by monster hills, which we don't have to go over. The climbs we do encounter are low gradient, gradual uphills, getting longer as the day progresses. Still nothing much to see along this stretch, though the lagoon a few kilometres out of town at first sight was a pleasant change of scenery, the stench wasn't. Rubbish reaches unprecedented heights and after a pretty good innings of 40 kilometres before 10am, the storm brews.

It begins by whipping us from the side. I watch a willy-willy up ahead tear a random path through a crop of wheat ripping off ears and expelling them upward and outward. Trees are blowing in every direction; the rubbish is heading towards the ocean; furnace blasting wind hurts our eyes and I think of a combination of the hot airstreams in Pakistan and the ferocity of power in Vantage, USA. While neither of these elements are as intense individually, together they make an energy zapping nightmare of a trip: especially seeing as we still have to go up.

Rumour has it that prevailing winds should have been helping us along our way down the coast; but they just have not eventuated. Instead we usually face headwinds or strong side winds that only hamper our journey. The rest of today's pedalling takes forever; is exhausting and incredibly disappointing as we expected a reasonably easy trip after yesterday's escalating onslaught.

Nine clicks before Salina Cruz, after a couple of kilometres along a beautiful stretch of highway where an angel decided to lay a lane-wide shoulder, there is another long ascent to tackle. Unfortunately, just as the climbing starts our safety haven stops. That same angel must have been looking down upon us and felt so guilty about not finishing the job off properly on this tiny winding road, that he turned that big fan in the sky around to blow us up the mountain. If only he had of asked first, I'd have said that I would have been happy with the number three setting and not the full strength number five. Nonetheless, we get pushed as much by nature as by our own strength up and over the hill. And then I'm sure there is no other reason than something good must have come on television up there, because the angel stopped taking care of us and we had to battle our way down the decline; wind full in the face and stopping me dead in my tracks twice. Yes, I did say we were going down.

Gastronomic boredom
Salina Cruz (74km; 903m) is uphill and a few kilometres to the right. Posada San Jose is directly opposite us to the left near the highway junction. Doesn't take too much guessing what we choose to do. Today our very large and spacious grot-box costs 150 pesos. It is on the ground floor, so we just roll the fully-loaded bikes in. After showering, I embark on trying to find a decent grocery store with some fresh vegetables, but after one and half hours of walking in the bluster I come back despondently empty handed. The lack of decent vegetarian food is becoming a bit of a pain; so much so we find ourselves getting excited over a tin of mushrooms and if we see the fresh variety I can only explain it as a salivating gastronomic orgasm.

As an alternative, I shop at the farmacia around the corner that has neither tinned mushrooms, nor tinned corn, just tinned peas, some pasta and a little tetra pack of tomato sauce. Dinner tonight is just that with some pecan nuts I've been carrying around since Melaque and more of the cabbage we had last night. Flavoured with onion and garlic and a big dollop of mayonnaise for a creamy texture, that's about the extent of our meals outside the larger towns. It tastes okay, but still we dream constantly about a mouth watering coconut curry soup with jasmine rice or a tofu and vegetable chowmein stir fry. Even the plain old vegetarian fried rice would go down a treat tonight.

So every night we eat rice or pasta with some version of vegetable tomato topping. Occasionally, if I have managed to get to a large supermarket, I'll stock up on a few packets of Knorr cream soup packets, which makes a different sauce for a change. Breakfast is mostly tortillas with avocado, tomato and cucumber, or something left over from the night before. Lunch is the same and we devour a couple of packets of savoury and sweet biscuits as well as fruit along the way too. The midday snack is tostadas and salsa. About half our vegetable produce is out of a can. Not that there isn't fresh foodstuffs around. There is, and in the bigger towns it is really good, but food doesn't travel well in the Mexican heat. So, we have to leave it up to what we can find along the way.

I can't
Getting up today is one of those bad mistakes; one of those days you would like to start all over again: fall back into slumberland and emerge in another place. Somewhere placid and more conducive to cycling; or at least wake with the strength of ten thousand men with the cry of battle on their lips. I have neither. Still, we step outside our humble overnight quarters into the windswept mayhem of Salina Cruz. Just before we leave, I'm feeling depressed, I know it is going to be hell. Ali hugs me and kisses with a "we'll just see how far we get, we'll take it easy". In reality, I know darn well that Ali can't take it easy. He is so much stronger than me and even when the winds are blowing him around like a feather, he doesn't understand that it affects me worse. It always ends up in a screaming match as violent as the storm around us.

Entering Tehuantepec after a tough but doable 16 kilometres, a most intricate piece of artwork in shiny metal stands glorious before us. After the rough and ready, under-flamboyant character we have encountered so far in Mexico, seeing such a contrast is almost fantastical. Up until now, I wouldn't have thought that such exact and sympathetic ambience was possible. The other pretty wild sight is the higher than usual motorcycle taxis carting people around this bustling little town. Mango stall after mango stall lead us out of town with the help of some pretty strong tailwind until we are out on the open highway. Then the wind whips up an unbearable frenzy.

We battle; we push; we struggle against it; we are thrown around; to the right when there is no traffic; sucked in to the left when trucks and buses speed thoughtlessly passed. I have no control; I scream a lot; I am totally shit-scared every time I am picked up and thrown wherever the winds wants to ditch me; I stop regularly to wait the wind-strength subsides a bit. And every time this happens, Ali screams back at me to "keep cycling". I yell back that "I can't". It needs to die down to even get me up on my bike again. He fires back with "Sonya, I can't, Spry", which is so unfairly far from the truth. I am just not strong enough to combat the force. I watch him from way behind getting blown around like one of the chicken plumes we see indiscriminately dumped along village roadsides. It is a long, slow and unhappy journey.

A very kind gesture
After almost 20 kilometres a slow moving pick-up pulls over a little up front. As I am navigating in the direction of it, I look to the left of me and I see palm trees with branches blowing horizontally towards me; I see birds falling out of the skies; I notice the butterflies can't get more than a metre off the ground and I know I'm no fool. If this guy is offering a ride into the next town, I'm taking it. I don't care what Ali wants. He can ride in this blustery hell if he wants to.

The six kilometre journey into Juchitan de Zaragoza (38km; 100m) seems so much easier from the back of a tray top, though the car is far from stable on the road. All his mates come to help us load the bikes off and Ali listens as our chauffeur explains with some great hand signals that the winds will continue to worsen today and that tomorrow the storm will be over. Our only alternative according to the group of gentlemen, now crowded completely around Ali, is to bunk the night here. Even after those kind words this morning, I am left wondering what his reaction would have been if I had told him we should stop here for the night.

We don't look too hard for a room today, which is to our detriment. We fork out 270 pesos for a large, but windowless room with air conditioning because Hotel Las Brisas doesn't have fans. An extra days stay, due to Ali getting an inflexibly stiff neck, probably caused from the airco, reveals the place is infested with cockroaches as well. We should have looked further in the town that is way bigger than it appears from the main drag. The wind is also blowing a gale, so it is further reason to put up with our little brown crawling companions for another 24 hours, but boy are we glad to leave when we can.

Calm before the storm
After the confines of our poor-choice accommodation, getting out into the fresh air is wonderfully good. The dead calm is, on the other hand, almost spooky. The remains of the thrashing storms just a day before are the only testimony that it even existed. Trees covered with shredded bits of plastic bags, wrappers and toilet paper. Even car parts and old bedding have made it into some low lying the branches. It is nothing short of a disgraceful mess.

And then I see the several hundreds of wind turbines in front of me. Such a contrast in ideologies to see both modern wind machines and magnitudes of rubbish sharing the same landscape. This view lines this stretch of highway for kilometres, which according to our map should be a lot bigger than it is. It is a dual carriageway, but carries no shoulder, so we use the right lane as if it were one. Besides there is relatively little traffic for such a road. It is as flat as a pancake but as the morning progresses the winds start to pick up and before we know it we are cycling once again into headwinds, though nowhere near the ferocity of the other day. Just a constant push to deal with, and not the added pressure of trying to keep yourself on the road too.

I can tell that Ali's neck is really hurting him and almost have to force him with reverse psychology questioning to get him to stop at Niltepec (53km; 124m): a town of nothing but adorned with two hotels and lots of friendly faces. We choose to ask at Oasssis Hotel (no that is not a spelling-stutter). We get a room not much better than the last, though it is minus our crawling friends and with the addition of a window. It costs 250 pesos. We soon discover there is no electrical socket so we will now need to add this point to our already long list of things to check when looking for accommodation.

Over breakfast the next day we joke about all the things we require: a jacuzzi, sky tv; high speed broadband internet; and masseur come out as initial whims, but seriously for the amount of money we are paying, all the things we wish for are simple and basic necessities. First on the list is a fan and not an air conditioner. They are dastardly things: give you a cold, stiff neck and most of them have one setting of ice cold and that's about it. They are also wretchedly unfriendly environmentally. Secondly, we would like a window: please I need to see daylight and don't like sitting around in something resembling a concrete jail. A screen on it wouldn't go astray either, what with all the bugs in this country. Next, a shower in some form of cleanliness and a bit of hot water every now and again. This point is followed closely by one accessible and working electrical point to charge our batteries. Lastly, a firm bed so I don't roll into Aaldrik due to him weighing his half of the mattress down. For the rest I'm okay with dusty, dirty surroundings outside me, having to carry everything up flights of stairs. As far as I'm concerned it doesn't even have to have a television. I consider being able to watch an English movie at the end of the day a luxurious bonus.

And the list gets longer
Ali needs to take it slow for next couple of days as his neck is still causing him trouble and San Pedro Tapanatepec is perfectly situated just another 53kms; and 199m down the road. The ride starts off much the same as yesterday: flat and easy, fast pedalling and heading straight towards some very ominous looking mountains. We turn away from them and they end up on our left. Tomorrow we'll start to embark on those, but for now we make the quick journey into a small and very Mexican town. Hotel La Mision is the first one on our right and it has all our requirements. Well at least until we go to walk down the street and find the whole room is not lockable. Another point to add to the list. It just keeps getting longer and I head off alone into town for supplies.

Just one of those days
At 7.45pm, we immediately start climbing from the outskirts of San Pedro Tapanatepec and it doesn't stop going up until lunchtime and we have reach the 25 kilometre point of the day. A plummeting fall follows and winds us passed a hospedaje just before the 33km marker before leveling off and then rising over another climb though very easy in comparison with the mornings efforts. It is then down onto the flat with tailwind blowing us in the right direction for a change. Farmland in the true sense of the word panoramically surrounds us: levelled hay fields, ploughs, cows and contrastingly green. Doesn't last long enough before the roller coaster ride begins. We are now on highway 190 and around 10 kilometres before Lazaro Cardenas the highway joins up with another fragment of the same highway and turns our relatively quiet journey into a maniacal nightmare. There is so much traffic. There is no shoulder. There is only my furious thoughts towards anyone who encroaches on my tiny space on the road.

Nothing can please me today and I'm not sure what it is. The cycling up and down the hills is not particularly hard. Sure it is long and hot in the sun, but I've had that before, and worse. But in all those instances that are still vivid in my memory, there was a reward for the aching knees, and burning thigh muscles. But where we have travelled so far in Mexico, diversity is at level zero. You know the whole time I think I can count the times I've said "wow" on my fingers. And most of those were on the jungle boat tour in San Blas and peering over the Michoacan coastline. While the hills look beautifully inviting from a distance as you draw near they morph into a dullish brown irrelevance with no promise of beauty. The town we will enter tonight, is likely to be similar to the one we stayed in last night. The hotel room similar, the shops similar, the people similar. Seems little reason to get up and cycle this sort of terrain really.

And true to form we cycle into a closed-up township of exactly those requisites. Cintalapa (81km; 1293m) has a couple of accommodation opportunities though they are all probably as insignificant as our box-room for 240 pesos at Hotel Marlene on the plaza. I wander in and out of several shops before I find what I want. The fruit and vegetable store is really sad and I feel embarrassed to walk out empty handed and grab the one and only banana that isn't way past its edible date, and an onion, a carrot and a pear which would have been better to leave behind. The whole thing was thrown in the rubbish bin the next morning. The people are friendly alright, but the rest of the daily goings are a repetitive blur. Gosh, I really hope it is just one of those days.

Simple town; simple food; simple room
We have barely got on the road and the traffic is whizzing past in a constant stream. It is just 8 am and it doesn't let up for the entire journey. One of the hottest days on the road so far and the only reprieve is the shoulder after Ocozocoautla although the traffic uses it too. Very long climbs in the sun coupled with streaming traffic are enough to set the nerves on edge. I've resorted to using my iPod shuffle these days as some sort of entertainment and it certainly has had the effect of calming me down somewhat and pleasantly enough, I even travel a bit faster. Also travelling at speed are the first set of holiday makers going back home.

We are planning to stay in Tuxtla Gutierrez tonight, but make this destination by 2.30pm, so we leave the bustling city with its Walmart, Chedraui, and Cera-Mart behind and go 15 kilometres further on a virtual downhill run to Chiapa de Corzo (97km; 800m). It is a much better choice: simple, quaint and colourful, a little touristy but neat and clean with a conveniently placed SuperChe for a purchasing a vegetable rich dinner and fresh bread. We are talking about it before we even find Posada Lenin offering a simple cement floor room with basic facilities for 200 pesos. It is all we need for the night's rest before the climb to San Cristóbal.

Up, up and almost away
We actually have two choices today: the libre (free-road) or the cuota (toll-road). We decided yesterday that we would take the cuota because the scenery hasn't been particularly inspiring of late and we could do with the wide shoulder it offers. It is also said to be a steadier and lighter gradient and as we pass the toll-booth we also learn that it is about 12 kilometres shorter. Even with all these pluses it is an energy zapping ride. Unfortunately, it is way busier than we imagined and we soon learn that the shoulder is just a second lane.

The 'every-bloody-rotten-name-under-the-sun' jerks today are the taxi-buses and tour buses as are the ignorant drivers of dilapidated pick-ups full of locals. The truckers are all complete gentlemen: not one does anything untoward and they all pull away from us and give plenty of room. Maybe they sympathise with us having to drag a heavy weight up 42 kilometres of non-stop incline. While it is a steady gradient of around 4-5%, it is still a long way up when you have to cycle roughly 1.85 kilometres straight up in the air in one day. There is absolutely nothing on the cuota at all except a few rest bays and the bridges are the only place to shelter from the sun. Though the temperature drops as we climb higher. At both 5 and 10 kilometres before the top there are some food and drink stalls for stocking up on fluids. We were thankful for their presence, as we had almost depleted our seven litres which we left with this morning, though not so thankful of their bumped-up prices for unrefridgerated products.

Internet Cafe, Palenque, Mexico, 01-05-09

San Cristóbal (53km; 1836m) is a total shock at first. Touristy to the hilt and we are not quite sure what to make of it. Accommodation prices for anything half decent are outrageously expensive but it does have some wonderfully amazing architecture with ambling cobble paths leading all over the place. At sunrise and sunset the colours are pretty amazing. It is definitely a town for exploring, which we do the first night while in search of all the vegetarian restaurants recommended in guidebooks and on internet.

Ali has his heart set on pizza and I don't really care as long as it hot and filling, I could eat anything resembling a vegetarian horse, I'm feeling that hungry. We seem to be out of luck with our tips, because most of the places don't exist and the recommended pizza joint sells food for prices higher than in The States. We eventually find somewhere reasonable in price and settle for the zucchini, eggplant and red pepper family pizza. We end up with a massive tomato, green pepper and seven measley slices of zucchini pizza. Maybe the guys in the kitchen are illiterate? Nonetheless, we decide its good enough to eat and the accompanying fries and salad make a filling meal.

We end up lodging at Posada Mexico which is a fancy name for a Youth Hostel. Unfortunately, it has share bathrooms which just irritates me no end these days, but we figure the clean facilities, free water, use of share kitchen, breakfast and unlimited wifi access are all enough of a pay-off to agree to take the room. They discount us a congratulatory 10 pesos each per day for staying for four nights and our room is still shamefully priced at 260 pesos per night.

It will be our first evening in a closed environment without any form of cooling since Baja and yet we need a blanket. Such a contrast to the night prior, when we sweated our little butts off waiting for the permanently rotating fan to make its way around to us each time. The next morning, the truth comes out about the wonderful facilities offered at Posada Mexico: apparently the breakfast and wifi are all around the corner at the affiliate Hostel, which is just a total nuisance. I'm not so annoyed about having to traipse round the corner for breakie, but not having a wifi connection is a pain. But what irks me the most is the fact that they didn't bother to tell us that when we booked in. A bit like the cheapo-pizza we received last night in place of the posh-one we ordered from the menu. This is the sort of stuff you contend with every day in tourist places.

Anyway, we figure: go with the flow, but after two days of eating breakfast and finding nearly everything except the dry toast and coffee totally disgusting and discovering the internet connection is so very slow that you can't upload or download anything, we know we've really been duped. We now eat breakfast at our hostel, which is set in a really peaceful environment until the landlady puts Bob Marley on full bore at roughly 10am and Ali pays a visit to the internet cafe down the road to do any data transferring. Somewhat different to what we imagined when we agreed to stay here.

Mr Stubborn versus Ms Pessimistic
Mr Stubborn's bike also needs a new cassette, chain and crank set. It has for months now and I harped on about throughout the States, because at least spares for a 7-speed are readily available there. But no, Mr Stubborn wants to see exactly how many kilometres he can pedal before there are no teeth left on any cog and the chain slips off altogether (answer: 22,369 km). When it is proving a bit of a problem cycling up the hills, one of his ingenious suggestions is to take my chain off, give it to him and put our spare on my also worn but not half as bad as his cassette. My answer to that: a big fat NO WAY!

The day long attempt to find a seven-speed cassette when we get to San Cristóbal is fruitless: nothing suitable to be found anywhere. As a last resort, Mr Stubborn decides to go out of town to a bike mechanic he saw when entering San Cristóbal. I am a little surprised when he comes back minus his bike and proclaims that the mechanic has said he can do the repair. According to him, the message about Shimano and strong steel components was well understood.

I have my doubts, but then again I'm known in these parts as Ms Pessimistic. My line of thinking is this: if all the bike supply shops in town do not have stock of any 7-speed cassettes, then how in the dickens is a mechanic on the outskirts of town going to come up with one. Seven speed cassette fairy? Stands to reason that this guy buys all his parts from the same places that Mr Stubborn spent a day running in and out of. So, I figure that it is highly unlikely that he can produce one and boy am I told how negative I am for voicing this opinion.

This mechanic, like Mr Stubborn, is also very optimistic and says he'll have his bike fixed in just a couple of hours. Mr Stubborn hands him the agreed 1060 pesos for parts and labour before he walks back to the Hostel. At the designated time of 1pm, he returns to find his bike in bits and the parts are yet to arrive. He walks back again along the 4 kilometre stretch to his accommodation to wait for the next appointment at 3pm. Mr Stubborn is on time, but the mechanic has obviously other more pressing engagements: the garage is locked up and he is nowhere to be seen. Mr Stubborn waits and continues to wait. Puzzled by this guy sitting on the sidewalk and wasting his time, the next door neighbour comes out to see what is going on. His gesture of a series of tilted fists toward the mouth signalling that the guy is out drinking doesn't add anything positive to Mr Stubborn's mood.

Double Duped?
Eventually the bike mechanic turns up x hours later with a plastic bag. He tips the parts out and luckily for Mr Stubborn, there was a bystander with enough English skills to do a bit of translating:

Mr Stubborn: What's this? I told you steel, Shimano. This is plastic. This isn't going to get me out of San Cristóbal. I have to ride my loaded bike to South America!
Mechanic: But this is all I could find.
Mr Stubborn: I don't want this. This stuff cost no more than 200 pesos
Mechanic: No, it cost 300 pesos.
Mr Stubborn: Why did I give you 1000 pesos then?
Mechanic: No answer.

Luckily, the mechanic does go back to the market for a refund and returns to the shop with all of Mr Stubborn's money and reassembles his bike. Needless to say, the gears are now almost impossible to shift.

There is just one more avenue to turn down and after a few emails to Marten at M-gineering, Mr Stubborn's bike hassles were over. While an 8-speed cassette doesn't fit on a seven speed hub, you can use the cogs along with your original spacers to build a new seven speed cassette. You either need to drill out the rivets or remove the hex-screws bolting it together, but that takes very little effort and the following day, the process is expertly carried out in a little workshop at the market. Labour costs the grand sum of 20 pesos (a little over 1 euro). Just for the record though, bike parts are no cheaper in Mexico than in The States.

Food for nausea
After a couple of walks around the town pushing my way through hoards of Mexican tourists, San Cristóbal definitely has a pretty nice feel about it. The streets alone are fun to wander around and take in the ambience. And if the colourful market with indigenous women selling their zapatista dolls and embroidery handicrafts isn't enough visual excitement, then maybe admiring all the well kept Herbies (VW Beetles) is more your thing. And there are an abundance of them not only here, but in Mexico in general. In Acapulco they are white with four blue fenders and are strikingly the main taxi service around the city which, if you are at all familiar with the blat of a V-Dub motor, makes for quite a bit of noise.

Our second night in town and we decide to try the vegetarian set menu in a restaurant just down the road. It tastes really good and over dinner we release weeks of pent up frustration over not being able to eat out. Finally, somewhere to consume some decent food that we don't have to prepare ourselves. That evening I can't sleep for the rock in my stomach, but I figure I'm just feeling a bit run down from the draining cycling in the last week.

Following day, Ali is craving a curry dinner and we venture to the vegetable market. By late afternoon, I'm in bed feeling hot, cold, a little queasy and not much like cooking. Again, I pass the sensation off as an after effect of getting caught in the afternoon's monsoon like rains. Rather foolishly, we venture back to the same little restaurant. I turn as green as my broccoli soup before I'm halfway through it and when the main meal is placed in front of me I realise I had better get out quick and find my bed. By the time Ali gets back, I'm writhing in pain, just preparing myself for the obvious nauseous night ahead.

And it is a ghastly evening of up and down to the communal bathroom: Man, I hate share toilets! For two days, I feel feebly cruddy and can't really do much at all: eating is a problem for at least two nights and I refrain from going anywhere near anything a Mexican has cooked. On the third night we try eating out again: this time pizza. I mean to say: how can you contaminate a pizza? Well the only thing I can think of is, there must be some pretty bad hygiene skills in the Mexican kitchen. This time we both have cramps.

Not a good run
Our planned leisurely bike trip to the village of Chamula lasts no longer than 15 minutes and eventuates in our decision to leave Mexico and not continue on our plotted route across the country. The road is severely potholed, narrow and incredibly busy. Cars, taxis and buses come close, honk impatiently as we wobble close to the jagged little edge of our path. A 20cm ditch running the length of the road is an obstacle worthy of slowing down for and as we cushion its jolt, a car comes within a few centimetres of us both, knocking us from the road. Ali sideswipes the back of the bonnet as they arrogantly zoom past and we certainly make enough noise to let our feelings known. The driver stops a few hundred metres further on and scams to blames Ali for the crack in the back light, which was plainly already there. A lot of hate and anger stuff spews from everyone, much to the amusement of the group of girls living in the house on our right. Taxi's drivers stop to stare as the argument goes on and this macho-egotist refuses to admit that he did anything wrong. He eventually drives off when I start taking photographs of him, his sidekick and his licence plate.

I have no inclination to continue on today's little side-trip and head back to town. Ali follows. Riding back into town, I decide that I have no interest in continuing on in Mexico. While the folk in the little villages are genuinely happy people, the traffic and the self-centred driving attitudes are way too much. And even though there is a lot more country to see, I haven't got the stomach to face long boring rides through rubbish strewn landscape, to find at the end of the day I have to sleep in a grot box for more than half my daily budget and all for the chance to see a couple of well-travelled to landmarks teeming with tourists. I think we've done our time here.

A smile emerges on both our faces as the route to Guatemala is immediately planned. New frontiers; new places to see; that's what travel is about. Bottom line is: if you ain't enjoying it, then don't be scared to change the plan.

Back to back e-mailing
Just as I hit the send button on the email to Ron letting him know of our new plans, Ali comes back with a route in mind. We don't have a map on hand, so as we check the roads on the pin-up board in the hostel it reveals something we didn't know. Apparently there is a road from Palenque to Guatemala. A bit of internet research also reveals that this is indeed true and it seems as though we have stumbled upon some off the beaten track cycling and rather a unique way of crossing into Guatemala. Only catch is the bandit stretch of road leading to Palenque and supposedly unsafe to cycle. We would prefer to have another person with us for a bit more safety in numbers. Ron is the likely candidate and another email is composed and whizzed off without delay.

Moving out
And without further ado, I go in search of somewhere else to stay. Posada Rosalito has a couple of signs advertising doubles with bathroom for 160 pesos, which is 100 pesos less than we are already forking out. I can hardly believe it when they offer a fully decked-out apartment for this price. Well, that is what it looks like in the photo. Unfortunately, I'm unable to view it until the next morning and I must say I don't get my hopes up. Neither does Ali. But, when Roberto shows me the accommodation, I can't hand over the money over quick enough and rush back to the hostel and tell Ali to pack up cause we're moving out into our own place.

Ron likes the idea of the trip we have in mind and our intentions of a few days stays in San Cristóbal becomes two weeks.

Tough going
San Cristóbal to Palenque (2.5 cycle days; 218km; 2796m)

San Cristóbal de las Casas to Ocosingo (96 km; 1190 m)
Ocosingo to Cascada Misol Ha (101 km; 1319 m)
Cascada Misol Ha to Palenque (21 km; 287 m)

The next two and a half days riding is going to be tough. Not only is the road mountainous and the weather stinking hot, but we have the niggling thought in the back of our mind of possible encounters with bandits. Every precaution is taken: bags are tied on our bikes making them difficult to remove; money is spread across all our luggage, including stuffed down our socks; I invest in a tube of pepper spray; and every person we see, I size them up for thuggery potential. Fact of the matter is the next 2 days are amazing as far as scenery and friendliness are concerned. It paints an entirely different picture than what we have seen so far in Mexico and it is wonderful to have had the opportunity to enjoy part of this country.

One of the nicest cycling days in Mexico
Fog engulfs the scenery of an entirely different San Cristóbal as the three of us ride towards the outskirts of town. Far more Mexican and less affluent than the tourist path in the centre. I'm adamant that I will tab all the individual climbs today, but loose track after the first three. Leaving the populous part behind a climb begins and lasts for 3½ kilometres. The thoroughfare is horrendously busy and the dangerously impatient stunts nerve-racking with only a 45° water runoff to our right. At least it is cement. We all breathe a sigh of relief when we turn off onto highway 186. A road sign says it is 210kms to Palenque. Our surroundings change immediately: the fog has lifted presenting us with magnificent blue skies; there is pine in the air and green grass on the mountain slopes. Farmland is neat and tidy; women wash the clothes in wells; pigs of all sizes tied to stakes fossick the soil; cows look up to see what is passing them; everybody smiles and waves. No brown; no dust; very little rubbish and minimum traffic. Hard to believe we are still in Mexico.

Two more hills follow though not as long and neither is the gradient as steep. Pointy pine covered mountains tower over us from all sides. The landscape is as fresh and exciting as the downhill plunge into Huixtan. A climb of the same magnitude leads us up and away through tiny villages for the entire day. Families come out to greet us and excited children yell "hello, goodbye; hello, goodbye". The cycling is a grind for the first half, but we sit around the 2000m mark, which at least keeps us cool. Between Oxchuc and Cuxulja however, the 26 kilometre stretch drops us 640m and the warm wind is noticeably draining.

After hours of up and down, we finally reach our last peak at the 91 kilometre mark and from then on in it is a five kilometre drop down into the typical Mexican town of Ocosingo (96km; 1190m). Hospedaje La Selva is only 120 pesos per night and very reflective of the price. Though considering the ride today, none of us are really bothered and just glad to have somewhere to sleep. If I had my time over again though, I would search a little further down the road. There are tonnes of other accommodation opportunities. I would also renege on eating pizza in between two back to back intensive pedals. Especially one with french fries as one of the toppings.

Party Poopers
Before I embark on how delightful the winding amble out of Ocosingo is, I have to touch on one of the more irritating points of autonomous travel in Mexico. The roadwork's department are quite good at annoying the heck out of anyone that has toured here, be it motorised or not. Besides inaccurate signage, they are solely responsible for the writhing discomfort brought about when I mention the word "topes". These speedhump-come-lumps-of-concrete are unlike any you have encountered anywhere before: irrational, inconsistent, impulsive and down-right bloody irritating are just a couple of the words that spring to mind. You cannot enter a town without navigating several hundreds of metres of vibrations. You cannot go uphill, without them hampering your momentum. You cannot tell whether the warning signs are real or a hoax. You cannot go down a hill without the dreaded thought that any minute now you will come face to face with one of these speed controllers.

So, yes the six kilometres of semi-flat winding amble out of Ocosingo is a bit of false advertising for the rest of the trip today. We can see the mountain ranges in front of us: they are massive and we'll have to traverse them at some point. The following six kilometres goes up a gruelling 360m, before plummeting down into corkscrew bends. The jungle noise is deafening as you whiz past a blur of banana palms and gigantic blue butterflies. And then you have to climb out of the valley again. The day continues in the same vain: wonderful cycling terrain if only it weren't so long and if only it weren't 47°C in the burning tropical sun.

Again, we are met with enthusiasm in every village that we pass through and there are plenty of these to stop at to refuel with drinks and supplies. Whatever you do, take everything you need to Misol-Ha: it is one of the biggest tourist traps you'll get yourself caught in with hyped prices in the shop and highly over-rated accommodation.

Alto: Stop!
Getting to Misol-Ha (101km; 1319m) is a completely different issue. For the first time in our trip, I reach my breaking point and can't make the full distance. No matter how hard I try to climb the last 100 altimetres, I am unable to move more than a distance of 300 metres before stopping. My heart is racing; my stomach is in a knot; my legs are jelly; I feel dizzy; overheated; and food and drink are the farthest from my mind. I've burnt up absolutely everything in me.

Part of the reason could possibly be the last two weeks of doing nothing in a cool climate and then two really tough days in the heat, but excuses aside at this point, I have no other option than to hail a taxi for the last 5 kilometres. Doesn't take long for a local mini-bus to stop and Ron and Ali help with getting the bike unloaded and on top. It only costs 30 pesos which is some consolation as I power off in motorised comfort, while the boys still have to traverse the nasty 80m over 1½ kilometres. They arrive and it is obvious the run has totally broken them too. Ali can't move for at least half and hour; Ron is wandering around semi-dazed; and I try and figure out what the deal is with camping here.

You call that a camp spot?
At Misol-Ha you will have to pay 5 pesos at the turn-off (community taxing); 15 pesos to enter the waterfall area (park fees) and then you'll almost faint when they ask 100 pesos per tent to camp on either the unkempt piece of concrete rubble next to the nonexistent pizzeria or in the car park. No tables; no chairs; no water; no lights; and toilet facilities 100 metres away. This makes Ron's deal as expensive as lasts night's hotel accommodation After paying the 200 pesos camping fees; negotiating that we are not going to pay 3 pesos every time we want to use the toilet; finding a broom to sweep away all the debris on the cement tent pitch; and sweltering in the jungle atmosphere, we decide to pay double the price and take a cabin with a fan instead.

Dinner is hard to stomach though totally necessary and we don't stop downing water for the entire evening. Sleep is ever so easy, except when an ant crawls into bed with me and bites my upper arm. It stings profusely for a couple of minutes and then I'm in slumber again.

Part of our security plan is to leave late today. According to guide books and bike tour operators in San Christóbal, the access roads leading to and from Misol-Ha, Agua Azul, and Agua Clara are the most notorious for robberies. Highway 186 has enough car presence by mid morning to not feel alone and off we trundle. The journey is arduous and hot even though it is only 21 kms and 287 m into Palenque. I am well ready for a rest day and a wander around some Mayan ruins.

First hotel we spy is Posada Los Angeles and it is only 150 pesos for the most amazingly clean and spacious room we have had in a long while. Fan and hot water as well as a balcony area are thrown in too. We are all happy until the news that all tourist attractions in Mexico have been closed at least until May 6. This means the ruins at Palenque as well. Swine flu has health authorities and the general community concerned enough to cause a widespread shut-down. In Mexico City, everyone is staying at home: schools, concerts, sporting events, even some restaurants and bars have locked their doors to the public. Seems like perfect timing to be getting out of Mexico. Just a pity we cycled such a demanding path with the aim of visiting this historic attraction, only to leave without experiencing it. Damn those swines!

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