To Ride it all Back: Bikepacking Mexico in Three Parts
Following a meandering two-month bikepacking journey around Mexico, Evan Christenson shares a series of journal entries and a wide-ranging mix of photos from three states. Find his visual diary and reflections on the many people and places he encountered while pedaling across Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Yucatán here…
I took a ride down in Mexico, bouncing around, mixing routes, trying new things, some road touring, riding solo, riding with my girlfriend, riding with strangers. I rode more or less for two months, minus the bout with some weird virus and two stomach bugs, so I call this ride kinda messy. I went down with no goal in mind other than to look around.
I had no riding goal, no computer, no destination. I took advice from locals, from strangers, and a lot from Cass. I took buses, I rode pavement, I hitchhiked. But I probably rode over a thousand miles on dirt in three states, and each had a unique taste, and all of those, I think, contribute to the overall flavor of Mexico. Instead of a typical article, I want to present a blend of images and a mix of my journal entries from the road. Because this story has no simple thread or nice ending. It was a deep exercise in life, and those are never all that simple.
Oaxaca is a series of small exchanges: the taxi driver’s hand laced with a dozen 20 peso notes, boys race through markets asking neighbors to break a 50, a busy night means every house on the street opens up and sells whatever with a small sign on the door and a bucket of ice, the waiter says we don’t sell beer here but I can go get you some if you’d like. There are no licenses, no permits to the lady making platanos fritos at the local soccer game. I order mine with too much cream, and they’re ruined.
Ten thousand feet here doesn’t even approach the tree line. It means another world entirely, where plants grow out of trees and agave grows the size of cars. I can’t let the lack of oxygen fool me. Life yearns for more here.
Yesterday, a drunk man in the plaza grabbed my bike and tried to take it. He asked for dinero and tried to pull it away from under me. I dropped off the hill when he reached in his pocket with two hands and slumped around camp later that night, sad and existential. But today I met the nicest man of my life. He has a small farm on a hillside. When I ask what he does for fun, he smiles wide and says, “I just like to work.” He feeds me oranges and pears fresh from his field, and apparently in town, his wife runs the little tienda I had chorizo at. While we talk, his cell phone plays Spanish Christian music. I hug him goodbye and promise to return. I often say I bikepack because it gives you a life of extremes. Mexico has a way of enunciating those extremes.
Today I met Michael, mid-50s, Swiss, a solar panel researcher with a PhD working in the field “before it was ever going to be a thing.” He first came to Oaxaca as a tourist 20 years ago. Then he came back for five months. Then again for eight. Then he moved here to work on an organic farm, found a beautiful Mexican girlfriend, they then dated for five years, bounced around, then he bought a small plot of land where I am camped now.
They built two houses from adobe, (one wall alone weighs over a ton in raw material!) And now have a huge garden of agave, cacti, trees, and grass. Then they broke up, and now they live together but separate(??) with a couple chained up, menacing dogs for protection. The place is rough, a work in progress but a beautifully simple life. “Mitla [the valley] is harsh. But it’s more real here.”
Mezcal tastes like fire on sunburnt lips. Can paradise also have rabid dogs and intense poverty, armed robberies, and burning trash? Could I ride here forever?
Today’s lesson: Christian rock music sucks in Mexico too.
Why is Diego Rivero on our street names but never in our classrooms back home? Why did I never learn about Francisco Toledo or even Frida Kahlo in school? Why have I never heard of Graciela Iturbide? Of course Mexico has their geniuses. Why do we seldom talk about them?
“I fear I’ve fallen in love with this place,” wrote Oliver Sacks in The Oaxaca Journal. I’m beginning to understand the feeling, but it’s a different love for a place than any I’ve ever known before. I float through these mountains so foreign and fascinating and know with certainty that I could live the rest of my life here and it would be full of beauty and wonder.
I first see the ocean through a sea of ferns, vines, and flowers. There’s a constant buzzing relegated to the background by now, the bugs begging for attention, threatening me with their song, now a chainsaw joins in, and a logging truck bounces through the small one-lane mountain road. The heavy moisture, floating idly in the air, sits heavy in my lungs, blocking any more air, almost choking me with its weight. Clouds roll through the valley and climb the ridges, mixing above my head, looming ominously with rain. The trees I’m now sitting under are the highest point for several hundred miles. I can smell the salt in these clouds. I can almost hear the waves crashing in their soft folds. Time to ride again, the color of the flowers will return to its placid blur, the vibrant green of these ferns also relegated to the background, my eyes dart from road to mountain to horizon and back. It’s still a long roll, 7,000 feet of climbing left to descend 10,000, apparently. But screw it: I’m going to the beach!
Let your bike sit in a town square for 20 minutes, and it’s guaranteed a dog will piss on a tire.
I rode all day today, and slumped exhaustedly into a hotel at sunset. I met Charlie as I was walking to find food, he was walking with two long, colorful Dorado in his hands, pulled straight from the ocean I’ve finally arrived at. He wore board shorts and flip-flops, he answered my broken questions in Spanish in broken English. It was late, and nothing was open. “Come eat at my house!” he says. I buy a bottle of Coca-Cola for his family and some tortillas, and we walk to his house in the hills above Puerto Angel to fry up the Dorado.
His family laughs and pokes at the gringo Charlie brought home. The dad of the house is shirtless and drunk, the mom is cleaning, his eight-year-old daughter runs up and hugs me. I sit and ramble while the kids ask me a barrage of questions. I help cook to get away from the incessant questions. We all eat together, and Charlie says how much he loves to fish, how he lives to fish. We eat with our hands, the small TV in the background playing a Christmas movie, a weird juxtaposition as we sit outside in shorts and sweat at 9 p.m. He invites me back for soup the next day, but I need to ride on.
“For I was hungry, and you fed me.”
I finally made it to the nude beach! It’s so beautiful here. The golden haze looks like a filter over a western movie; it’s so dramatic. I dump my bike, drop my undies, and run into the water when I arrive. “How long are you here?” A naked man asks me, his man bun, tattoos, beaded necklaces, and small Nepalese towel strike a remarkable scene. He’s calm, tall, attentive. Almost Jesus-like.
“Two days?” I say, being generous. I’m actually thinking of leaving tomorrow.
“You?” I ask.
Sometimes, this feeling of freedom will grab me and shake me to my core. I feel alive. I feel both excited and intimidated by the infinite possibilities of a loaded bike and no itinerary. If I could synthesize this feeling into a pill, the world would be a wildly different place. I’d be so rich.
I’m riding down a highway under construction, hot mid-day heat and the noise and the bustle of it all, so my head is down. An Iguana, four feet long, bright green with orange and blue and oh so big goes scurrying down the road right in front of me. I shriek and skid, looking over the embankment, trying to find where he’s gone. There are some construction workers lying in the shade. They call me over.
“They’re all over the place.” They say.
“Wow. Fascinating! I think they’re so beautiful.” I reply.
“Want a beer?”
Today on the roadside, a smiley man in a small adobe house invites me in. His esposa is making elotes. So, I sing them my elotes song, we eat, and we all laugh. There is this beautiful exchange here. In any stranger’s home in a foreign place, I come with questions: how do you live, what do you do for fun, do you believe in a god, are you happy, and so on. And they have questions for me: What is America like, why do you ride a bike, where do you sleep, and so on. The human condition is universal. We are all curious, we all have questions. We exchange this information, we scratch that itch, we learn a bit, we hug it out, I ride on. I love the informality. I love the spontaneity of this. There is nothing fake in an interaction like this one. Thank you, Diego.
It’s dizzying, the number of international people I’m meeting with all different lives and all different plans. French, Spanish and Polish, Dutch, Argentinian, Chilean, Aussie, Kiwi, Japanese. And they’re headed everywhere in Mexico: Tabasco, Chiapas, Yucatán, Baja, Guadalajara. It’s a cultural melting pot in any hostel I go to. Mexico is a hot destination for young backpacking hippies. The small ecotourism centers are beautiful, the culture is vibrant, the food is phenomenal, it’s relatively cheap, there’s so much to see, and it’s all so laid back down here. What a life.
Tonight, I had dinner with an Argentinian bike tourer. She’s been on the road for five years now. She left her home in Ushuaia and has ridden all over South America. She stops for some time in places to work to stay on the road, sometimes juggling at red lights, sometimes doing tarot card readings, sometimes waiting tables. We do tarot on the beach after dinner, and she has me pull a card. It’s a lion.
That same night, my sickness gets worse. I’m almost unable to breathe, so we go to the hospital. It’s cold and miserable, with hard chairs and fluorescent lights, nothing charming, nothing superfluous. I suffer through the entire process, and at 2 a.m., we wait for a taxi in an empty street under the thunderous booming of the nightclub just next door.
How could anyone come here, live here, eat, laugh, and love here, and not come to appreciate Mexico and those who call it home? What a beautiful culture. What fun people. We are going to Chiapas tomorrow, and I can’t wait.
A woman says an emotional goodbye to her husband at the bus station. Her love language is gentle tears and a heaping pile of food for the road: papas fritas, carnitas, and tamales. He will not starve on his trip.
It is customary to say “provecho” to others as they get their food or as you leave a restaurant. It’s derived from the verb “provechar” and means to seize. Seize this meal. Seize these nutrients. I love that.
Today, we rode to a famous church in the mountains. No pews, a million candles, long robes hanging from the ceiling, pine boughs cover the ground. A steady hum of prayer fills the background, and people pull chickens from bags, say a prayer, and then yank their necks to kill them in sacrifice. Entire families gather around a collection of candles on the floor, drink Coca-Cola, sacrifice their chickens, and pray. This level of religious devotion is humbling.
They’re very clear about the fact that you’re not allowed to take photos inside. And I, the entitled photo nerd I am, decide that rule doesn’t apply and take a quick picture on my cell phone. Two boys who were apparently waiting inside to see if anyone breaks the rule go running out, and two big men come walking in. They take my phone, make a whole scene, and I’m so embarrassed. I pay a 1,000 peso fine and leave in shame. I’m going to hell for sure now.
“What do you like about Mexico?” I ask Martin, the Spaniard I’ve been riding with for a week now. He’s been here for eight months, long enough to have a finger on the pulse. “I like the people. They’re so nice. And the art. They can make beautiful things here.”
Fifteen more hours on the bus tomorrow, and we’re in Yucatán. Maybe it’s less awkward there. I stand out like a sore thumb in these small towns.
We camped in a family’s garden last night after a long day of riding. We’re somewhere deep in Yucatán, in a village of 15 houses and one crossroad. I fell asleep listening to the soft mumbling of Mayan, a language I can’t understand, but the laughter, the parents interrogating the children, the subtle pause as the food is eaten, the pace changing with a good story, that I can. The morning alarm is a barrage of tropical birds shrieking. We arrived in Yucatán yesterday, and I’m already aware of how this place is yet another entirely new world.
We ride into a cenote in the evening, pitching tents as everyone else leaves. We swim in the morning—four times before anyone else arrives. As we leave, a small line of cars has begun waiting to enter. We’re quite literally riding against the grain, and this is the beauty of bikepacking
I had to ask the Mayan family we’re staying with if they had any thoughts about the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world in 2012. At first, they didn’t remember, but they finally chuckle a bit and say, “Oh yeah, we had a small party.”
Tonight, while camping at the mouth of another cenote, we go for a night walk inside. The bugs are so loud we have to talk forcefully. A long, striped snake is hanging from the ceiling, hunting for birds. Next to it is a spider the size of a steering wheel. Back at our palapa, spider eyes reflect my headlamp like glitter. The roof has now become a disco ball of terror. It’s hot, and I refuse to exit my tent unless I need to. We’re a short boat ride from Cuba and a day’s pedal to Guatemala.
The modern life of a Mayan family, a small cement home, thatch roof, wood-burning stove, two buckets for washing, plastic on the ground, kids in the hall, and tortillas on the comal. This town, dotted with these homes, small Coca-Cola branded tiendas in between, a church in the middle, and a small park with the smattering of local kids screaming a mix of Mayan and Spanish and wearing football jerseys. We’re just down the road from Chichén Itzá, the famous old Mayan city, epic in size, full of dreams and science and intricate carvings. This town is nothing alike. Time is surreal.
After a long push and two more hitchhikes, we’re in Cancun and flying home tomorrow. Cancun is awful and packed with tourists. It feels just like Florida. I can’t wait to leave this city. But I am so sad to be leaving Yucatán. We were finally finding a flow, Martin and I, this stranger I stumbled into and decided to follow around. We meet beautiful, fascinating people every day. We swim in quiet, beautiful cenotes. We connect the dots from town to town, riding back roads and playing air drums. Martin helps me with my Spanish. We split the cooking duties.
The people in Yucatán have been so kind. Yesterday, we asked a man if there was a place to eat in town, and he just waved us inside his home. I ended up making tortillas with his family afterward. We sang Christmas songs together.
And the landscape has been so beautiful and full of surprises. All of the Mexico I have seen has been the same amount of fascinating. Every corner is different. Every corner has its story. And there are so many more. I leave tomorrow, but I know I’ll be back again someday soon.
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