I think it’s impossible to capture in images or words the scale of Mexico City. Despite this it felt surprisingly calm and manageable, so long as you didn’t use the roads. I gave a day to cycle the 30k into the historic centre. My maps didn’t work so I thought I’d stick to questions and see where I ended up, figured I’d see more this way than a head down approach. I subsequently met a few bikers, a young student Donaldo who invited me into his home for a drink and gave me a T-shirt and Francisco, who led me into the historic centre of Zocalo. A night in a hostel and then I moved in with Hector and Natalia, a couple of bikers and warm showers hosts. A really good fun yet fiercely political couple who worked in urban development they shared insights into the social problems in the city and impressively their ideas on dealing with it. After Hector pulled out an old copy of End Hits on vinyl our friendship was sealed. We visited the Teotihucan, which had a population of 200000 back in 200AD, the floating gardens of Xochimilco and did a little partying. Marcela introduced me to some less visited parts of town and I did a little work with them in the informal settlements that were trying to gain beurocratical recognition with the help of the FVFPI.
Getting out of the city was a nightmare. Partly self inflicted but mostly due to the insane traffic and the climb that ensued. I scrapped the main road for a ride through markets but progress was slow and food too tempting. Back on the highway to brave the smoke. I found that most cars and trucks were little danger in Mexico but the array of busses caused me so many problems. Without stops people just flagged them down where they wanted and hopped off wherever the drivers would let them, a great system but this meant they would swing lanes with little warning. To compensate the drivers drove crazy quick and liked to pound out mariachi music like you’ve never heard. To cap it off the hub caps on these party busses were adorned with huge metal spikes sure to be the end of my shins. I ended up taking the shoulder of the fast lane which pissed off a fair few people but increased my chances of survival. A 60 climb with a few puke breaks, took me out of the mountains that surrounded DFA and down the otherside coughing up truck fumes, yet pleased it was over.
Over untill on the downhill at least where I was looking forward to listening some tunes and sitting softly when I ran over a hunk of wood which spun up into my real wheel and got locked in my derailure. It threw me in the bush, knocked my wheel out, snapped my chain and broke my derailure in two. I initially tried to chuck the derailure, shorten my chIn and make a magic gear but it was all a bit too much of a mess. Sitting at the top of the valley the views were stunning so I brewed up some coffe and decided to ignore the problem and play guitar for a little while. Thinking i’d be setting up camp there Mr Egg showed up and gave me a ride into the next town. Angel worked as a local chicken vet and he took me to his home for some excellent chicken in salsa verde before dropping me off in town to find mechanical help. Luck was in as they had a semi compatible derailure and ardent feminist activist Reina put me up for the night. I made the odd deacision to hitch 40k back up the road so as not to lie when the Mexicans asked me “todo en bici”? Before hitting the mountains. More mountains. Big mountains. Hot mountains.
Oaxaca city impressed immediately with its brilliantly green plazas full of lovers and musicians not to mention the food. Everyone had forewarned me to make room for oaxacan food and I was eager to dig in. The best horchatta in the country, tlyaudas and mole on every corner the place was a dream. Lazily paced and artesenal, slightly crumbling yet well kept Oaxaca proved to be another wonderfully livable Mexican city. A day off, myself, Nick a fellow Brit and German Carlos who I’d met in Guanojuoato crammed in the back of a truck to hierva del agua a natural infinity pool high up in the hills.
Winding through the valleys of Oaxaca Mexican life was quietening down and returning to rural farming roots. I stopped for some water of the house of Jose Antonio Ortiz, he introduced his self full name with cold eyes and a stern look. A convoy of RV’s passed behind us and with his tutting his views on the increasing tourism apparent. “They are sad we sell real coconuts and not safe plastic coconut water”. He told me of his time in the Mexican military in Cuba and of the independent movements he was involved in the area. There seemed to be a lot of friction with the government in Oaxaca, slogans on every bare rock face in the mountains had given me a basic insight already. After a few questions Jose wouldn’t stop so I took a place in his hammock and the next thing the mescal was flowing. He was fascinated by Angela Merkel and Europe and after we exhausted politics he put on some tunes of sorts and my days riding was over. Adelina, Jose’s wife came home to find Jose in a sorry state, id being trying to pace myself relatively successfully. She wasn’t best pleased and I had to drive Jose to church in his old Volkswagen, a nod to his interest in all things German. We returned to a great chicken soup and I set up camp in the yard under another incredible sea of stars. Adelina told me I was a million stars better than a five star hotel. I agreed.
Further into Chiapasn even more rural and indigenous way of life prevailed. Tidy, well kept, productive villages where every building was adorned with several hammocks had steady paced, functional and proud vibes. A restaurant owner told me to watch out for the women in this part of Mexico. A far cry from being masoganistic he was nodding his head to the strong feminist traditions, led by indigenous groups and the Zapatistias. This proved evident in Tehuantepec and Juxchitlan where women conducted nearly all business affairs, bantered and even cat called. The tables were turned but with a pang of guilt I secretly liked it. I’m sure it was just the novelty. The men were left to drive the taxis or to talk the politics!
Out of Oaxaca into Chiapas the temperature kept creeping up, the air thick and humid. The cattle went from standing in the fields to lying under trees and stretching their legs across the land. Big lizards scurried out of the road as I passed and the cobble stone streets of colonial settlements were again replaced by dry dust in which shoeless children would play. Roadside mangoes and star fruits were plentiful and all signs pointed to the tropics. Chiapas is one of Mexico’s poorest states and a couple of hundred kms from the Guatemalan border. It’s had a history as being at the forefront of grassroots political movements. I stopped in the town of Pijijiapan. I’d noticed in the last few few days a define anti-gringo sentiment and couldn’t find a bed anywhere in town. I’d been told it wasn’t safe to camp and the church was closed so sat supping on a beer on the street corner after dark. Illiana invited me to her aunts house, insisting with a worryingly gentle finger across the throat gesture that I obliged. I gratefully followed and was welcomed by aunt Antonia a few drinks down. She had been informally housing migrants, mostly from Honduras in her house and hammock filled yard. I heard plenty of stories of the ease of crossing the border and interestingly a common lack of desire to get properly registered. I slept over my bike and possessions after being told there was a problem with the migrants getting robbed. Huixtla 100k closer to the border showed again the transitory nature of this part of Chiapas. Every hotel seemed to be a love hotel and things felt another slice of dodgy, there was clearly a problem with migrant exploitation in this 200k tolerance zone. The infamous beast train which migrants use to get to the US border doesn’t run this far south necessitating an even more tretcherous route on foot or via road. The Hondurans told me the police rather than relocate them would rob them, even of their clothes and loose trainers, tops and underwear were scatteres in the ditches. This is no secret migration and I cycled past group upon group of what I presume were Central Americans, holdalls in hand. Making tracks to the border I tried to help Sam fix his motorbike, he invited me back to his house right on the river that separates Mexico and Gutemala and I spent the evening playing guitar in his church. I felt somewhat melancholy about leaving Mexico. Despite the scenes of the last few days I felt so safe there, was all over the food, felt really at home with the people that invited me in, inspired by their collective spirit and sense of responsibility for each other, fascinated by the geography, history and regional differences. I could have happily rode around the country for the rest of the year.
Up early for border day and it didn’t take long to encounter a problem, some hardly official officials stopped me and insisted I needed documents for my vehicle. I protested but this didn’t work so I sat down with them for a chat and a smoke. After half an hour of football talk they clocked on I was wasting their time and laughed me off. I bumped over the bridge into Guatemala to take on the huge climb to Quetzaltenango. I got halfway and hit Coatepeque. 35 degrees and so humid my body said no more so I checked into another posada come love hotel. Did a bit of research to find that this was considered the most dangerous town in Guatemala. Apparently this was the centre of gang operations taking drugs the back route to the border. On walking round every store was guarded by a chap with a gun, even the chicken shops.
Leaving in the morning even the crop fields were looked over by armed guards. The city surrounded by coffee plantations had a vibrant feel still, people didn’t seem overly concerned for themselves. I chatted to a young man, Jorge covered in tattoos working the coffee plantation which provided the fair trade coffee people sup in fancy coffee shops. I asked if I could buy some from him and he told me of the trouble he would get in, this coffee was to be kept out of this market. He told me the cocaine industry was much less exploitative than this. I asked no more. Riding of into the mountains I felt a little more anxious, even on this rural route I was constantly told to take care “mucho robar” and young kids, with backpacks, school kids, not workers walking the road carried machetes. The grade of the hills were too much and for my ailing limbs but old truks carrying wood to the mountain pueblos all had handles on the back. Busting a pace I was able to Latch onto the back and hitch ride after ride, all from the comfort of my bike. Taking care to let go before they changed gear and ripped my arm off. The drivers seemed to enjoy my audacity, before flying down into Guatemalas second city and the highest city in Central America, Quetzeltenngo or Xela to rendezvous with Will from back home.