So Close to Mexico City Yet So Far From Anything by Tim Travis

Tuesday, September 10, 2002 (Sent From Amecameca, Mexico)
As the title suggests we have been riding around the world's largest city but have not yet gone there. Since Toluca we have been exploring the urban and rural areas just south and east of the city. Even though we have been about an hour away from the capital (by car) we have found this area amazingly remote in places. We have been close enough to pick up a wide variety of FM radio stations and have been to a few locations that some of the 22 million Mexico City residents like to visit on the weekends. We learned to spot them by their new cars and stylish "city" cloths. Yet, away from these few weekend spots we saw rural Mexico with life going on nearly the same as in the time of the great war to gain independence from Spain. We did not expect to enter and cross the Mexican wilderness so close to Mexico City but I loved every kilometer of it.

One reason for this areas remoteness is its ruggedness. We have either been climbing epic 5,000 ft. mountains that thin the air and destroy the legs or we have been descending 5,000 ft. ear popping plunges that make the hands throb from squeezing the brake levers. I am quite sure that Mexican road building standards differ from the ones in the USA in terms of the percent of the grade allowed. These roads can be very steep. Once when we were stopped at the top of a particularly steep decent I envisioned this road covered in snow and that I had skies strapped to my feet. I was sure that if you looked hard enough you could see moguls and the double black diamond signs warning you of a very long hard run.

The weather was just as extreme as the altitude. At the higher altitudes it was damp and cool with large stands of fresh smelling pines. Long sleeve jerseys were the standard daytime riding cloths and heavy jackets and long pants were necessary in the evening. Once we got to the bottom of the mountains it was warm and nearly tropical. Sweat poured from our bodies while we labored up steep grades or just sat in the shade. Sleeping at night was difficult because of the heat and bugs. Even the tent felt hot.

From Toluca (where I sent out our previous letter) we headed southeast to the picturesque town of Malinalco. This involved a steep but short climb out of the Toluca valley to our greatest elevation to date of 10,150 ft. while riding our loaded rigs From the summit we could see for miles. It was beautiful and frightening at the same time. The drop off was so big it was like the earth was disappearing below us. On the way down we had to stop and let our brakes cool several times. We saw the vegetation change from damp cool forests to humid tropical green bamboo and banana plants. When we finally hit the cobble stone roads leading into Malinalco I looked at my altimeter and was alarmed to see that we were a bit over 5,000 ft. I also noticed that the air was thick and heavy and much much warmer than before. There were unknown flowers and plants everywhere.

Malinalco was amazing. It had cobbled streets and views of mountains in all directions. You could not see it from above because of it being hidden among dense green vegetation. We spent a day climbing up to the local Aztec ruins and exploring an ancient Augustinian church and monastery. We ate a lot of ice cream sold by little old ladies pushing vending carts around the plaza. You could not help but look into their eyes and see a life time of wisdom and experience. The day we left we got a little lost riding out of town and we both got our fill of riding loaded touring bikes on moss covered cobbles.

The ride to Chalma was hot but beautiful. Children played in dirty creeks while men slept in the shade. Even the dogs were to hot to give chase and seldom woke up from their afternoon slumbers as we rode by. We did not know what to expect in Chalma but planned to have a much needed lunch and rest there. Chalma was mentioned in our guide books as having one of Mexico's most important religious shrines. Allegedly, an image of Christ miraculously appeared in a nearby cave and replaced one of the local Indian Gods. This image was moved to the church and is highly regarded among Mexicans as a "must see" on the religious circuit.

The road climbed gently from Malinalco until we reached the out skirts of this small village. Then, the road turned sharply up and we shifted to our lowest gears (22 x 34). Instead of spinning this less than 1:1 gear I found myself standing on the pedals and grinding. This road was so steep that people kept large rocks around to put under their tires when they parked so they would not loose their cars to the hill. Kids with astonished looks on their faces watched us from the back of their dad's pickup trucks that were parked outside hardware and feed shops. I do not think that they had ever seen anyone crazy enough to ride a bicycle up this steep road before. At the turnoff to the famous church we plopped down at a makeshift restaurant to refuel. Over lunch of some kind of chicken soup and a large stack of tortillas we decided that this was the steepest grade that we had encountered to date unless you count the elevator that we rode in Toluca.

Chalma was a small village but seemed to be filling up fast. There were all manner of buses, taxis, horses, and burro trains arriving in town as we ate. We also noticed hordes of people with backpacks and walking sticks marching into town who looked like they had come a long way. Then we saw that some of them were carrying large heavy wooden boxes on their backs with statues of the Virgin Mary or Jesus enclosed in glass. Most had flowers attached everywhere including elaborate crowns of flowers on their head. We asked around and learned that the next day was Chalma's birthday and the people we were seeing were all on pilgrimages to this special place. We also learned that thousands more religious pilgrims were on their way to celebrate. All of them walked for days to show their devotion. This happens every year. The ones that carry the heavy wooden box shrines on their backs are doing this for their village church. These portable shrines sit in their church all year except when they are carried to a religious festival. The porters of the shrines are heroes among the people in their neck of the woods. It is a great honor to suffer in this way. It looked hard. At least we more or less fit in here. We must have looked like we had come a long way on our bicycles to attend this special day. We even occasionally heard "Cheeto" which is Spanish slang for cool.

Everyone was setting up camp and sanitary conditions were deteriorating. I quickly noticed that many of the men were very drunk. Pilgrims were electrified to finally make it to town and occasionally they cried and fell to their knees to pray. Others doubled over to puke from to much alcohol. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. The whole scene was crowded and unreal. It looked like a combination of a tent revival, Boy Scout outing, and drunken high school party. The church was too crowded to get close enough to see the famous image of Christ in stone. The streets filled quickly with pilgrims. How could more be on their way? We were seriously thinking about staying the night to see the whole show but felt that the crowd was a little to unstable and bathrooms were in short supply. It was starting to smell funny.

We had to be patient to get our bikes through the crowd and back on the open road. We knew that we had a climb in front of us but had no idea how big it was going to be. At least the grade got better and we could comfortably spin and talk. We were the only ones heading out of town. We rode past an endless stream of staggering pilgrims heading to the already overcrowded village of Chalma. They barely noticed us even though we were riding very slowly up the never ending hill. They were preoccupied with their mission.

After several hours of climbing we were back in a cooler climate. We came to a small village that was full of food stalls and pulque venders that resupplied the masses walking down the road. Pulque is an alcoholic drink made from the sap of the Agave plant. It is white and frothy. It looks similar to milk. Pulque is considered highly nutritious even though it has the kick of a strong beer. It was a good thing that it has some food value and vitamins in it because, by the looks of the pilgrims, many had been living on it for days. Pulque sales were good. We asked around about places to camp and were told "anywhere" was fine. We got away from the drunken mess and made camp. That evening I walked back into town and got a couple of liters of pulque for us to try. We sat and watched the sun set over the mountains while we listed to the BBC news on our shortwave radio and sipped pulque. It has a distinctively different taste but not bad. I prefer a good Mexican beer. That night it rained as we slept.

The next morning we woke and did our usual morning routine of boiling water and making coffee and oatmeal. I lazily sat outside and drank my coffee and read a three day old newspaper while Cindie did her Yoga in the tent. As we were packing up we noticed that the road was filling with cyclists. Some of the bikes were pulling makeshift trailers with ten foot high wooden crosses erected on them. They were mostly teenage boys and were riding every kind of bicycle from heavy one speed beasts to expensive sleek new road bikes. We wondered where kids get the money to buy a US$800 wheel set that probably costs much more down here. Japanese, European, or North American bikes and parts cost more in Mexico than in the United States. Despite their lack of age and the early hour they were just as intoxicated as the pilgrims on foot the day before. Among the hundreds of cyclists eating and drinking I saw a half dozen drunken boys about thirteen years old standing around with road rash (in bike lingo, open wounds from sliding across pavement) all over their arms and legs. They were too numb from drinking pulque to notice any pain. I thought of the irony of the same thing that likely caused the crash also kept them from feeling the pain.

We left the mob behind and continued to climb. We thought that we were near the top the night before but soon learned that we would have to climb for another entire day. Even though the higher altitudes are more comfortable this time of year we were discouraged because we were heading to Cuernavaca which we knew was even lower than Malinalco and that Amecameca was nearly as high as Toluca. This explains all the climbing and descending that I mentioned before. Down twice and up twice.

We finally found the turn to Cuernavaca and asked people about the faint road on our map. Several people were completely unaware of any road going east to Cuernavaca (even though it was clearly signed) except the main busy one to the north. We asked two old men riding rickety bicycles about the condition and length of the road. They had a fairly animated disagreement over the numbers. The truth seemed to be elusive. My Spanish is improving but I was still unable to catch the whole story. I believe one of them told me that it was paved all but four kilometers while the other insisted it was six. Neither had a clue as to how long it was. By the time I was done talking to them I was not sure that either of them had ever been out that direction before. I was only sure that the road was longer than I could see and ended before it hit the Gulf of Mexico. When I asked if they would like to join us in riding to Cuernavaca they looked at me like I was loco. As we rode away they both gave us big toothless grins and waved their hats in the air.

We were already over 7,000 ft and knew Cuernavaca was a little less than 4,000 ft. Somewhere there had to be a decent. We climbed another six kilometers and then the road turned to dirt. At first we saw a construction crew sitting around and a big sign next to the road bragging about how soon the road would be paved all the way to Cuernavaca. The date on the faded sign was 1998. The dirt road slowed us down a bit but the absence of traffic and the quietness was worth it. We rode through a pass somewhere over 8,500 ft. and dreamed of a long gradual decent. We descended about 1,000 ft. then climbed right back up to where we started. We did this a couple of times and finally came to a settlement. It had a one room school house with a wood burning stove. I asked some surprised locals if I could fill both of our ten liter water bags from the faucet (do not worry - we always filter our water). They said yes, and then we pedaled off to camp on a hill overlooking a green valley. That night we listened to FM radio from Mexico City. I could pick up at least twenty-five strong stations. The variety was amazing. We were so "Close to Mexico City Yet So Far From Anything". I slept well in the cool mountain air.

The next day we continued climbing and descending on the dirt road until we came to a high pass and could look down forever. This had to be it but it looked steep. By this time we had knocked out thirty kilometers of dirt road over the past two days. Both the old men at the turnoff were far off the mark. We dropped like a rock but could not go much faster than the way up because of the roughness. We passed several horses, with muddy men leading them, carrying firewood. They smiled and waved enthusiastically back at us. As soon as we hit the pavement we were surrounded by luxury homes in a very upscale neighborhood. We knew we were in the suburbs of Cuernavaca. The occasional pack animal was replaced by brand new Suburban and Range Rovers. What a contrast. We descended all the way into town and before we knew it, we were both sitting on a bench in the plaza eating snacks.

We stayed in Cuernavaca for several days. It was hot and humid due to its low altitude. We went to several great museums including Cortez's Palace. It is a beautiful colonial city with nice architecture and old Spanish built churches. Because of the heat we lounged around a lot. We have a friend visiting from New Mexico in a few weeks and spent several hour on the Internet shopping and ordering various camping and bike supplies. In the big cities of Mexico all manner of high tech bike and computer stuff is available but usually costs twice as much as American Internet mail order. I seem to go through tires quickly. We had everything sent to her house and she will bring our stuff when she arrives in Mexico City. Thanks Patty!!

The day that we left we climbed about 1,000 ft. before we even got out of Cuernavaca. Our road through town was closed off because of a large carnival. Rather than finding a new way around it we rode right through it. It was late morning and the crowd had not gotten into full swing yet so there was some room. The street narrowed and we soon found ourselves riding in a tunnel created by game booths and food stalls and their awnings. The carnival went on for about two kilometers this way. We got some pretty funny looks but, as usual, the Mexican people were very polite and helped us move things out of the way when necessary. Once out of the tunnel we made good time even though we were still climbing. We rode past a huge Army base and had to pull over to check the map. The soldiers, standing at attention in the guard house, had a hard time not looking at us. I waved and one of them even nodded back. I wonder what they thought.

After several moderate up and downs we rolled into Tepotzlan. This is a very nice place. It has tall mountains on three sides and the sheer cliffs create dramatic views. Apparently it is a favorite relocating spot for Mexican artists and hippies. Long haired boys with guitar cases and barefoot girls with lots of beads, were slinking all over town. We got a room, checked out the church, and lounged around town. We witnessed some kind of religious parade going to the ancient church that was complete with incense and fire works. It was an expensive place and we could only stay one night.

The next day, as we were planning our route with the map, we noticed that we could go two different ways. The first was on the Autopista (freeway) and that went straight to the next road that we wanted. The problem is that it is illegal to ride a bicycle on the Autopista. It is a very expensive toll road that only the rich can afford. We have read that it cost about US$3 for every fifteen minutes of driving. The second way was legal but was ten times longer and went down at least 1,000 ft. into a valley and back up to the road that we wanted. The Autopista was just too nice. We got on and hoped that we would not see a cop. The police would surly squeeze a fat bribe out of us. Well, after about ten minutes a Federali zoomed by and flashed me a dirty look but did not stop. Close call. Had he stopped us he would have probably collected enough pesos to bring home a new video game for his kids that night. Surprisingly, it was all down hill and we were off in twenty minutes. At the exit pay station another cop with an M-16 assault rifle looked worried at us, glanced around, and motioned us through. Wow, we got away with it. I hope that we never have to risk that again.

From there we got on another fabulous country road with little traffic and started to climb again. I looked at my altimeter and was shocked to see that we had descended back down to the elevation of 3,500 ft. We had not seen an elevation that low since Green Valley, Arizona. After sharing this information with Cindie we both knew that we had about a 5,000 ft climb in front of us. At least we were getting used to the idea of climbing for days.

This last climb, in fact, took two nights and three days to get to the top. The riding was very hot at first but cooled off as we got higher. The first night we found a beautiful campsite with views into the valley that we had just climbed out of in one direction and the mountains that we still had to tackle in the other direction. The second day we had to leave our quiet rural road behind and join the much busier road to Amecameca. The traffic on this road was made tolerable by its wide width. This road is the main evacuation route when the large active volcano Popo goes off. We had been seeing warning signs on the roads telling us that we were entering an active volcano zone for several days. The last time there was an eruption was December 2000. Every business in the area has informational posters on how to get out when Popo blows his top. Needless to say, everyone was a bit nervous when they talked about it.

The second night of the climb we had a hard time finding a place to camp. We were tired from climbing the previous two days. I filled our ten liter water bag at a store and found a fruit orchard down a little rocky road that seemed hidden enough. By now we had camped all over Mexico and nobody had kicked us out or bothered us yet. We pitched our tent among trees containing avocados, lemons, limes, and many other types of fruits that we had not seen before. After we got the tent set up and started dinner we saw a couple of boys walking down the little rocky road with their school uniforms on. They were obviously going home. A little later a man came walking back and came straight up to me. I could see both of his hands and that he was not armed. I was ready for our first speech about private property and getting kicked out. We were both to tired for that and it was almost dark. Instead he invited us to stay in his house. He said that his brother's family was away in Mexico City and we could stay in their house. He announced that his wife would make us dinner. I put my pan of half eaten macaroni and cheese down and started to pack up. As we were packing he started explaining the orchard to us. When we told him that we had never seen a particular type of fruit, he gave us several examples to take with us. He then borrowed my knife and cut each one open for us to sample while explaining the whole cultivation process. He introduced himself as Pancho.

We walked our bikes to Pancho's house and met his wife Beatrice. They showed us where we could stay. We could not believe it. We had an entire traditional Mexican house to ourselves. They told us to roll our dirty bikes into the living room. That evening, after a delicious dinner of Chili Rellenos, Beatrice told us that when the two boys got home from school they said "Mama, there are gringos in the orchard! Can we ask them in?" This marks the second time that the kids wanted us to stay with the family and convinced their parents to go back and get us. The other time was a couple days south of Guanajuato City. We both took showers and relaxed with this wonderful family. The kids showed us their favorite toys and books. I even helped the oldest boy with his English homework. I am always amazed at how much homework Mexican kids do. American kids the same age do less than half the school work than their peers south of the border. They also go to school more hours each day, and more days per year.

We slept well and the next morning Beatrice had breakfast waiting for us. We ate, drank coffee, and talked about the dangers of the volcano erupting and the problems of the USA and Mexico border. We took some pictures and packed up. I could tell that they wanted us to stay but we did not want to strain their resources any further. They were not a wealthy family.

We rode another six miles up the mountain and found ourselves on flat terrain all the rest of the way to Amecameca. We arrived in Amecameca at 1 PM and had plenty of time to sit around the plaza before getting a room.

Amecameca looks great. It has two giant nearly 18,000 ft. volcanoes that are permanently capped in snow. One of them is Popo which is the one that likes to erupt every few years. In addition, Popo has a permanent plume of smoke rolling out of it's crater. I have never seen anything like that before. The view from town is dominated by these two volcanoes less than fifteen miles away. Amecameca has a lot to do. We have already been on a couple of great day rides on quiet country roads and seen many other road cyclists. People told us that everyone looks at Popo's smoke plume for any signs of changes every day of their lives. It is a force of nature that rules their lives. We plan on riding the road to the trailheads of the volcanoes which climbs to 15,000 ft. There are numerous hiking trails around the base and a couple trails across glaciers to the peaks. Amecameca has decent hotel rooms for only US$8 a night so I think that we will be staying a couple weeks.

We also plan on leaving our bikes here and taking a bus into Mexico City for a week. We actually met an American guy that rode into Mexico City and said it was no problem but I have been there before and have no interest in riding a bike on those city streets. We will meet Patty, from New Mexico, and check out the nearby large Aztec ruins of Teoteohuican and Tula. We will also set aside several days to absorb the world's largest city. The Mexicans that live there are unique and differ greatly from their countrymen in the rural areas. This group of people is truly Mexican as well and to come to this country and not experience its capital city would only be getting half the story on Mexican life.

Visit Tim and Cindie's web site as they travel around the world


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