Good Night 2020: A New Year Biosphere
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After nearly a year apart, Cass and his son Sage are reunited just in time for a Good Night 2020 campout. Read on for a trip report from a Mexican biosphere that comes complete with a travelling manatee, trashy beachcombing, and moon dances… as well as thoughts on big rig tag-alongs and a stop motion film from Sage too!
When Logan pitched the idea of the Good Night 2020 Challenge, I have to admit that I wasn’t wholly convinced, despite the beautiful logo and concept he’s laboured over. Likely, old habits die hard, and the idea of camping in mid-winter can be a hard sell to an Englishman, where the shortest months of the year are more often ‘miserably dark and drizzly’ rather than ‘deliciously cold and crispy’.
But who was I to let my English grumpiness spoil his Southern hospitality, because I know full well that winter campouts can be especially magical amongst friends. Last December, I spent several evenings in the New Mexican high desert with my bikepacking compadres, stoically ignoring forecasts that promised lows of -20°C. After all, what is a brumal campout but an excuse to chat long into the night around a fire, snatch a few hours of sleep, and enjoy the soft hues of a wintry sunrise?
All this is a moot point for me, however, because right now, I’m about as far removed from both a wet UK December or a snowy New Mexican New Year as I can imagine. This meant I had little excuse not to rise to Logan’s campout challenge, especially in the knowledge that his own version would be far more of a frigid affair than mine. With my son Sage visiting me in Mexico over the festive season – after 10 long months apart from each other due to the twin ills of COVID-19 and geopolitical austerity – it was just the excuse we needed to make it happen.
And thus it was that we found ourselves loading up our bikes for an overnighter on the northeastern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula – or more specifically, the Riviera Maya, as its coastline is known in tourist-brochure-speak. Lured by the promise of its the Caribbean Sea and stalactite-filled cenotes – ancient sinkholes that pock the land – I’d already visited the region a decade prior, on a detour south from Alaska. Granted, the world never stops spinning, so I’ve learned that it’s best not to get too hung up on the past. But this time round, it was hard not to be shocked by what has become of the once-sleepy, coastal hamlet of Tulum.
While nearby Cancún has long been known for its mega-resorts and a skyline that casts an early afternoon shadow across the sea, hippy Tulum has now transformed into a seamless proliferation of low-slung, luxurious eco-hotels, so tightly packed that access to the beach is completely sealed off for all but the well-heeled. And where once this narrow paved coast road was quiet and the pace of life surrounding it unhurried, this potholed affair is now plagued by a stream of vehicular traffic, like a never-ending spiritual rush-hour for those seeking their authentic Mayan beach experience. Out of my way, you’re treading on my aura!
Beaches that, I must admit, remain as beautiful as ever, even if their white sands have to be painstakingly swept each morning by a small army of hotel minions, so they better reflect those glossy tourist brochures and Insta-influencers that draw people here. Because nowadays, the reality is that the Yucatán faces the double challenge of sargassum algae that smoother its shores and increasing amounts of ocean trash that washes up amongst it.
Still, just beyond Tulum lies the beautiful UNESCO site of Sian Ka’an, otherwise known as the Origins of the Sky, according to Mayan legend. One of Mexico’s largest protected biospheres, it boasts a nucleus, covering 95 per cent of its 1.3 million acres, that remains completely closed off to all but those who visit for scientific studies.
The edges, however, have taken on a more ‘lived in’ appearance – even if the park is supposed to be shielded from new developments. Sure enough, as Tulum’s injudicious eco-sprawl creeps south, a handful of resorts are popping up. In fact, one especially luxurious complex is the former abode of notorious 90s Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar.
The route I had planned was the same I’d ridden a decade before. It traced a sliver of idyllic coastline, fronted by wild beaches to one side and backed by an expansive lagoon to the other, where a dense tangle of spindly mangrove trees cleverly filter and trap sediments, heavy metals, and other pollutants. Thankfully, the road conditions had barely changed and I admit that I found myself savouring the potholed track that slowed tour minibuses to a crawl. We overtook them, gleefully, on our human-powered big rig, as we wiggled from one side of the jungle to the next.
A low-key haven amongst parcels of private land and swish beachfront houses, we were headed for a fisherman’s campsite to spend the night under the stars. The various hardships of 2020 have touched everyone across the globe, often in ways unexpected and deeply personal. In my case, they’ve manifested in an inability to see my son for almost a year, which made this particular campout all the more meaningful.
Our plans were as simple as can be. On the way to the reserve, we’d flagged down a man on a cargo trike loaded with pineapples and children; we’d bought one (pineapple, that is) to feast on at breakfast the following day. The rest of our to-do list included swinging in a hammock. Eating dinner at sunset. Getting up for sunrise. Jumping, running, and dancing on the beach. Leaping into the sea and doing battle with the waves. Beachcombing for treasures. And taking turns to read to each other – two pages me, one page Sage. Even reading has taken on a particular poignancy with him now. Over the last year, we’ve ‘Zoomed’ most days, often for an hour or more, during which time we’ve worked our way through one book after the next. More recently, we’ve been rereading the same Mr. Gum stories we chortled and laughed at when we were apart, except for this time our bedtime snuggles are real and not virtual. Way better!
And the beachcombing? Well, everything in life is a lesson, and a sandy amble along the shores of the Sian Ka’an is a sorrowful class on the plastic pollution that now pervades our oceans. What was once an idyllic beach is now littered with almost every plastic object imaginable – be it flip flops, Coca-Cola bottles, toys, or shampoo bottles – washed up from across the Caribbean. Even the ospreys here now supplement their nests with plastic bags.
That night, we camped under an almost full moon and I purred happily, squeezed as I was beside Sage on our one sleeping mat, while he fell immediately into the angelic sleep of an eight-year-old. The moon crossed the sky in a magnificent arc that kept me awake. But I didn’t mind, because it made me all the more aware of exactly where I was. Later, an inky storm threatened to usurp the clear sky, which we used as an excuse for a late-night decamp under a palapa.
After a calming sunrise – and once we’d washed our sticky pineapple fingers clean with seawater – we rode to an old bridge further down the peninsula to look for crocodiles. Then we climbed a rickety wooden tower at the Sian Ka’an visitor centre. It swayed in the breeze and afforded us with glorious views across the mangroves, marshes, and coastal lagoon. And as we turned our three wheels north once more, we took turns to make up a story about the animals that reside in the Sian Ka’an; a young manatee swims to Abiquiu Lake, New Mexico, to seek fame and fortune, sending news snippets back to his family via migratory brown pelicans and white ibises. A marauding flock of Magnificent Frigatebirds, that puff up their throat pouches and drum on them with their beaks, provided the soundtrack.
For sure, our imaginations were fired by a boat tour we’d enjoyed just a few days before, in which our knowledgeable and observant guides had pointed out all manner of the biosphere’s elusive inhabitants – be they sea turtles, manatee, dolphins, crocodiles, or dozens of birds, like toucans, frigates, storks, pelicans, and a pair of Great Curassows. A Christmas gift from Sage’s mum, it was declared his favourite present. Yes, better than Lego, which is saying something! Like our very own nature documentary, it brought the reserve to life in a way that perfectly complemented our bicycle trip. Together, they reminded me of the value of learning and growing through physical challenges and hands-on, didactic experiences like these.
And then, our campout was over. We were back in eco-chic Tulum, weaving through traffic once more. Except that this time, we were carrying a little of heavenly Sian Ka’an’s white sand with us, so fine that it finds its way everywhere, be it in the bottom of our tent, in the creases of our clothes, or behind our ears.
I never expected I’d be rounding off the year like this, but I can imagine no better way to bid 2020 goodnight than by camping out with my son Sage.
The Big Rig
We pressed the Tout Terrain Streamliner into service for this trip, as its suspension swallows Mexican potholes like Sage devours tacos. It hasn’t been used this year – it’s been on loan to a friend in New Mexico – and given Sage’s beanstalk proportions, I wondered whether it would still even fit him. Luckily, it proved absolutely perfect for the cut and thrust of Yucatán touring – which is often remarkably well connected by bike paths, but is also riddled with a style of madcap driving that strikes fear into a parent’s heart.
As much as Sage likes riding his own bike, he also loves to chit-chat behind me and, when he gets tired, he’s not averse to kicking back and coasting along. The social aspect of a tag-along – or a trailer cycle as it’s also called – is one of the aspects that I love most about it. Once hooked up to a bike, the experience is almost like being aboard a tandem, except it packs down much smaller, which makes it a lot easier to load into a bus or pack into a box for a plane. The tag-along has proved to be a real eyecatcher too, encouraging waves and thumbs up from almost everyone we pass. In some ways, tag-alongs – like the Streamliner or the Burley Picollo – are ideal for family, mixed-terrain touring in a country like Mexico, which can flit randomly between friendly, considerate drivers, crazy-ass taxis, bike paths, feral dogs (both friends and foes), and gaping potholes!
And lastly… Sage knows how much I’ve loved to document our trips and thankfully, he’s very patient when I ask if I can take his photo. This time, he decided to create his own stop motion trip report – via his preferred medium of Lego – which I’m sharing here. Watch it below!