Monday, November 9, 2009

Curious Goose

Stopping for a quiet lunch outside of Tuxtepec we take notice of a curious goose keen on clean bicycles. His bike worship went on for many, many minutes until I shooed him away once he started to reef of the cables of the bike. He didn't move far though he simply waddled over to the next bike to cuddle up and gaze longingly.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Plunging into the Papaloapan

Okay, so....I lied.

Earlier I said we were going to cycle this route the opposite way when we offered it as a tour.

You see, Basil cycled this road a decade or so ago and his memory was almost as foggy as the middle part of this day's ride. Leaving Ixtlan we believed we had 17km of uphill to be followed by a beautiful long downhill to almost sea-level, but much to our surprise 17km became 40km, and as a result, the ride became not so easy. It didn't help that our very late departure put us at only half way down the mountain by nightfall. Our only blessing was that the rain and the fog gave way leaving us a beautiful, dry, newly paved road that delivered us safely into Valle Nacional.

In the end, the amount of work that went into this day's longer than expected climb and our rolling (not always downhill) 3000m drop made us realize what a death march this ride would be for most fully-loaded bike tourists if cycled the opposite direction. For most such a ride would be simply impossible. Therefore we will indeed drop 3000m instead of climbing them. That drop will take us through pine-oak forests and into stunningly lush tropical hardwood jungle that is fed by water that trickles slowly and then cascades down the walls of the surrounding mountains eventually turning into tremendous rivers that gush out into the Papaloapan Plain. Corn, tobacco, coffee, rubber, sugarcane, and pineapple fill the valley and spill out towards the state of Varacruz. In Valle Nacional, surrounded by descendants of the Chinantec people, we eat empanadas and relax.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Perfect Egg

A day was taken to explore the communities and trails around Ixtlan de Juarez where everyone and their dog's fleas are named Juarez. In this exploration Basil and Alejandro came upon what might be the most perfect egg. Fried on a flat clay grill (comal) rubbed with salt this egg never met a drop of oil but it was coupled (quite beautifully I might add) with a fresh piece of the peppery anise flavoured leaf known as hoja santa. Bring it together with handmade tortillas and and this humble breakfast gets my label as the perfect egg.

Oh, and there are some pretty sweet forest trails out here as well, but those eggs!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Arriving Ixtlan

We awake in a tidy, but roughly hewn wooden cabin in the village of El Punto almost 1000m above the Valley of Oaxaca. Outside the sun blazes down the lush hillside that leads to our cabin evaporating the thick layer of dew that has fallen overnight. We layer up in preparation for the remainder of our downhill before climbing back up to Guelatao the humble birthplace of Mexico's most beloved President, Benito Juarez.

From Guelatao it is a steep ascent to sleepy Ixtlan de Juarez once famous for it's cochineal industry. The Churrigueresque churches are the only testimony to the wealth that the highly sought after vibrant red dye of this insect brought to the area. Like Baroque on steroids the interiors of these churches drip with colonial excess. After silver, cochineal was once the second export of Mexico. It is difficult to imagine this simple town created so many millionaires.

Today it's wealth lay in the biodiversity of its surrounding forests. The WWF rates it amongst the 17 most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. All of Mexico's big cat species can be found here. Thankfully the Mexican government has invested a great deal in the development of ecotourism in this region and the surrounding communities take their role in this development very seriously.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Speedy Exploration

Okay, Okay, we're back. I've finally come out of my long travel slumber and am ready to return to Mexico. Well, I've actually been here for a few weeks, but it's time to get on with talking about it. What inspires this? Why riding of course! We are making a quick turn of Oaxaca's Sierra Juarez to tweak the details of our Journey to Ixtlan tour that we are promoting for January 2010 - which is coming up fast.

After two years of bike touring inspired homelessness we've rented a spot to call home in Oaxaca. It needs a little TLC, but one of the main reasons we love it (apart from the garden and the terrace) is that 3km of pedalling has us plodding up into the steep folds of the very Sierra we are currently exploring - and I won't lie, those folds are steep. Fret not though, if you're thinking of joining us on tour, just for kicks and extra challenge right now we are riding the route backwards. Our intended route will go the other way round.

There is something crisp and magical about getting away from people and up into the mountains. It's as if getting away from all the noise and cement of the city distills my focus down to what is truly important. It is a great way to clear your mind. It is also a great way to enjoy some simple but delicious grub. Mid climb we stop at Linda Vista to look back on the Valley of Oaxaca and to enjoy some trout and some of the tastiest tostadas I remember eating.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oaxacan Street Art

If only all graffiti could be so interesting.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What is going on in Mexico?

I've been silent here for a while, but as our travels in Greece wind down and my thoughts drift back to Mexico I have a few things to highlight...

Mexiphobia is really on the rise this year. I arrived in Greece just as the Swine Flu media frenzy exploded, and, with the amount of travelling I had just done, I have to admit that I felt a little unsettled about my potential exposure. However, as the brouhaha developed I became increasingly more and more annoyed. Basil did a little research and revealed that half a million people die every year because of the regular seasonal flu. Five million per year are hospitalized for severe symptoms. As the World Health Organization escalated the H1N1 virus to Pandemic level, tourism in Mexico plummeted yet the death rate for those catching this flu doesn't even come close to normal seasonal flu levels. The global death toll currently hovers around 300. At least the overzealous US fascination with the habits of Mexico's drug cartels has lost some of its media shimmer. I refer you to The Truth About Mexico as a good resource addressing the Mexiphobia that is running rampant in the USA and Canada.

Thanks to Shelly for forwarding this video about Swine Flu. This just made me grin and gave me hope for humanity.

And last, but not least I'd like to just put forward a little 'food for thought'...

Maybe, just maybe H1N1 is a call to seriously pay attention to how our food is being produced. Could it be that our drive to produce cheaper and cheaper meat is making us sick? Surely it isn't just coincidence that Mexico's outbreak started next door to US owned Smithfield Corporation industrial pig farm. Between the toxic manure lakes and the dirty confined quarters these animals live in, perhaps the filth of our agri-greed is catching up with us in the form of H1N1. I love meat, but I'd happily eat less of it, pay more for it, and be proud to know my farmer was raising my food in a sustainable, healthy, and environmentally non-damaging manner.

I'm not alone in this, recently delivered a petition to the WHO in Geneva demanding global investigation and regulation of factory farms. The reaction of the WHO is interesting and can be read here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


All hail the marvelous mango!

Mango season is in full swing and I feel obliged to make mention of this magical time of year for my dear friends who don't live in mango producing countries. These babies featured above are ataulfos - the king of mangodom - as far as I'm concerned and my fruitbowl is full of them. Yum!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Mexican Advice

I've been quiet because I haven't been well. It is not uncommon for me to get sick at the end of a touring season. Sometimes I wonder if cycling keeps my immune system up. It seems that as soon as I stop for more than a few days some bug grabs me. I'm feeling better now and have enough energy to reflect on the all that has passed between the Yucatan and Chiapas.

I love Mexican rotulos (painted signs on buildings), but, as a cyclist, this one was priceless especially because Rayon, Chiapas is a tiny little pristine village above the clouds on the road to Jitotol. The advice is still good.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Coffee, Caracoles, and No Cameras!

It is hard to imagine that, only one day before, the mountains were lush with thick tropical foliage. Leaving the town of Jitotol for San Cristobal Chiapas, we are well into pine forests. We can see our breath, but the sun is shining, and, remembering our horrible hypothermic ride from last year, Basil and I say a little prayer of thanks for the lack of impending rain. This absence of rain allows us to enjoy watching the local villagers picking and drying coffee beans. The smell of the coffee fruit fermenting as we pedal through the villages is even more intoxicating than the landscape.

As we pedal our way higher into Chiapas, the people become a little less friendly, and somewhat suspicious. Passing two military camps in less than 30km it's easy to imagine why. We arrive at Oventik or Caracol Cinco, which, to describe it in overly simplified terms, is one of five centres for Zapatista good government councils. Each centre is structured to represent it's surrounding Zapatista indigenous communities and the effort is to supply them with fair local autonomous government. These centres are called caracoles because historically the caracol (conch shell) represented autonomous gatherings. The shell was blown into to summon meetings. If you're interested there is a lot more info about Zapatistas and their Caracoles here .

What we see as we saunter into Oventik or Caracol 5 are colourful zapatista themed murals and a small shop selling zapatista paraphanelia, some daily foodstuffs, and coffee and light snacks. The place teems with "intellectual" European tourists out to support the rebel cause with their small wire-rimmed glasses, cargo pants, multi-pocketed vests, hiking boots, and either a laptop or obscenely large camera. Service is slow and smile-free.

Climbing to Oventik was pretty darn steep, but there is more than half the ride to San Cristobal left. The steepness eases off, but the climbing continues past Chamula ladies in thick furry skirts who are unfazed by our presence. They sit stoically, scarves piled atop their heads, watching their sheep. Occasionally one of them kneels with a small loom weaving the wool from the same sheep that graze nearby.

I wave and no one waves back. It is the only place in Mexico where we are almost invisible in our bright colours and spandex. We've warned the group that nearing San Cristobal it is strictly taboo to take pictures of the very interesting costumes and customs that we will cross paths with. The locals will take your camera. Sometimes the language barrier and the temptation prove to be too much. Fortunately these revelers were only half in the bag and were in good enough spirits to demand money in return for the camera offense of one of our fellow cyclists:

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Carnival Jitotol

It has rained the better part of the day only occasionally clearing to briefly offer up some rewarding view in exchange for all our hard work. Imagine if, when you finally roll into town and settle in to your humble digs in this far away Mexican mountain town, you see something like this go by your window:

Naturally you are intrigued so you follow it to the main square where the whole town has gathered for this final day of carnival. The costumed revellers mill akwardly about the centre of the town's square in front of a live band that has set up especially for the occasion. There is no commercialism here. Pure fantasy and tradition and one man with fireworks on his back.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Ugliest Church in the World

Today I sit in my cheerful room in La Loma Hotel in Pichucalco waiting out the rain before we embark on our three day stretch of cycling through the mountainous backroads of Chiapas. I try not to let my mind panic with the hypothermic memories from last year's last day of riding through increasingly chilly and steep altitude into our final destination: San Cristobal, Chiapas. It can't possibly happen twice, or can it? Basil and I look at each other and shiver with the thought. Rain! Rain! Rain! Get it all out of your system so that we might properly enjoy today's glorious ascent to Tapilula - and please be done by 8am. Looking through my window at the ugliest church in the world, I opt to say a little prayer to Chac, the Mayan God of rain.

Taken on a sunny day, this is a photo of what Discovery Channel deemed the "Ugliest Church in the World". What does that look like sticking up from the back right hand side?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bikes for Tihosuco

My intrepid pal Elisabeth likes to pop in to visit us a few times a year. Sometimes we are honoured with a whole week of her company over our shortest of bike tours, but usually it is just a few days. This trip was a birthday visit and we had an entire weekend between tours to have a speedy adventure in the Yucatan. This season's adventure was a 70km bike ride to Tihosuco.

Two of our fellow cyclists decided to leave their bikes in Mexico with the hope that they might improve somebody's life. After some thinking, I came up with the "Caste War Museum" in a small town close to the border of Yucatan and Quintana Roo States. Three years ago Basil and I were more than pleasantly surprised by this little community museum and it's multi-faceted director Carlos. In our exploration we passed through this friendly town and were taken to its museum to learn the entire Mayan story of Mayan resistance to the European invasion from the beginning to the ultimate culmination of the Caste War which started in the mid 1850's and trickled on into the first two decades of the 20th century. This museum tells the story of it's people by it's people and it is a true treasure.

The exciting part is that it is so much more than a museum. It is a gift to the children of Tihosuco. Carlos focuses a great deal of his attention on maintaining a strong connection between the elders and the youth of his village. He has spearheaded a project with the elders to record their knowledge of medicinal properties and applications of the local plants. Out of this has arisen a small handicrafts shop with a large branch focused on the sale of locally produced medicinal teas, soaps, and oils. Another project brings the elders into the museum at least once a month to share stories and legends with the children of the village. Recently a UN project donated some radio equipment to them which allows them to broadcast these meetings for the whole village to enjoy and now plans are in the works to set up a small radio station. These monthly meetings have also evolved into a video project that has recorded the Caste War memories of each of the village elders.

These are just a few of the ambitions of this community, and along with all of these things, they are also prepared to host visitors on extensive day trips sharing traditional knowledge in a variety of ways including: guided trips through the forest, the corn fields, traditional music and dance, traditional meals, and even homestays sleeping in a hammock in a Mayan home.

On our more physically challenging 3 week tour around the Yucatan two years ago, we slept and ate in the homes of some of the families in Tihosuco. We were the second group to be hosted by this community and it was a remarkable experience. With this in mind, I knew Carlos would be the man to find an excellent future for our orphaned bikes. So, we pedalled them there to give them to him and to enjoy a day learning about the past, present, and future of Tihosuco. We were rewarded with a song about a flirtatious lady cyclist.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

World's Best Eggs

When I was a little girl I fell madly in love with boiled eggs. In those early days I think it was actually more about playing with the funky egg cups and smashing the empty egg shells with the back of my spoon than it was about the eggs, but eventually my love evolved to encompass poached eggs, eggs benedict, eggs florentine, and once I left home and started to travel it became all about the Italian fritatta, the Spanish omelette, and then one day a guitar playing chum named Lionel dragged me to breakfast at some British friends of his in a grotty little apartment in Madrid. We were all starving students and they apologized for what they had to piece together. I was handed a plate that contained a fried egg, a heap of acelgas (boiled greens), a spoonful of fresh tomato sauce, refried black beans, and a fried banana. To me it was a strange looking breakfast, but, as I quietly blended each of those flavours together in my mouth, I felt my concept of breakfast and eggs shaken up forever. Many times thereafter I dreamt of the flavours from that strange breakfast.

Eight years later, I found my way to Mexico where my tastebuds learned how to really appreciate an egg. Huevos rancheros, a la mexicana, chilaquiles, en salsa verde, they're all delicious, but the King of all egg dishes has to be: huevos motuleƱos.

A corn tortilla smeared in refried black beans, topped with a fried egg and fresh tomato salsa. This is then topped with another bean-slathered corn tortilla and a fried egg with more tomato salsa. This is sprinkled with chopped ham, peas, cheese and, last but not least, fried plantain is placed on the side. I couldn't believe my eyes or tastebuds when my dream breakfast from Madrid 8 years prior, appeared at my table only this time with a whole lot more style.

I've since discovered that this fusion of Mayan and Lebanese cuisine was invented especially for Governor Felipe Carillo Puerto at a Motul restaurant owned by a Lebanese man named Jorge Siqueff. Today his family still owns a restaurant in Merida called Siqueff on Calle 60 between Calle 35 and Calle 37. The setting is peaceful and the eggs are phenomenal.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hydrate or Die...or at least cramp up and feel like crap for a few days

It's sizzling hot out there. You find yourself craving sickly sweet drinks. For the distance you've gone, and the terrain you're riding, you're unusually tired. Your brain feels sluggish and your legs feel like lead weights. You're dehydrated!

In Mexico the fridge is always full of Coca Cola, and often you can find some brand of sport or energy drink, but there is also a much more natural alternative to help you stay hydrated while on the go in Mexico. Basil (my beau) promotes it as "Basilade" to our riders who join us every year for a little bit of riding in the sun...

Suero Oral - (unflavoured electrolytes in powder form) are available for free at all public health centres (Centro de Salud) and artificially flavoured ones are available at some pharmacies. It comes in little envelopes (see photo above) filled with the correct balance of electrolytes to rehydrate an infant suffering from severe diarrhea. We use it as a preventative measure adding one or two ice cream taster spoonfuls to a bicycle water bottle. Now an important and often overlooked step in our home made gatorade is to add in a little sweetness to assist in absorption. Some people add a little juice, or a little world class Mayan honey (the brown stuff in the bottle in front of my water bottles), or a little sugar, and a little something else for flavour...I went through a little Matcha phase (that's what is in the circular tin in front of the water bottles featured above), but a truly local choice is Jamaica or Hibiscus flowers. I've posted about this fantastic little flower before, but above is another picture I took of some drying by the side of the road. A few of these flowers along with some honey and some salts is DeeLish and good like cranberry juice is for a ladies pee parts which is always helpful for when your chamois is smooshed up against a saddle all day! While this beverage is traditionally served cold here in Mexico, as your bottles heat up throughout the day you can pretend you have been invited into an Egyptian home for some hot hibiscus tea. Hot or cold you can't lose with tasty sweet-tart hibiscus.

In pharmacies you will also see plastic bottles of liquid Pedialite which is also used for rehydration, but it has a terrible artificial taste and once opened must be kept cold which is a problem while bike touring. The powder works well because you can mix as you go. This brings me to another important point, you really don't want to over do it with the salts too many can cramp you up and make you feel as bad as if you cycled around in 37 C heat all day without any salts at all. You just need a little bit. Experiment - it is a very personal balance. Some people need half a taster spoon and a ton of sugar, some people need two heaping taster spoons and a little bit of sugar - we're all different! Listen to your body and you'll learn your own recipe.

And two last things about keeping those muscles feeling good by staying hydrated in the heat:
1. Do not keep your Basilade drink longer than 24hrs. It will go bad. Mix as you go...
2. Rinse your bottles and let them dry EVERY night! The tropics are a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. If you do not rinse your bottles then you will be ingesting a jungle full of bad guys.