Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mission Rainbow part II : Big trees, backpackers paradise and tough riding

Acapulco at sunrise
The catching headlines about murdered tourists and the violent gang war between cartels for control of Acapulco and its strategic port had me worried that my night time arrival into Acapulco. A worker in the bus station where we pulled in enhanced my concern when he strongly recommended I take a taxi to my hotel only a short distance away explaining that there was "muchos problemas" in Acapulco and that the ride should only cost about $2.5 US. I appreciated his advice and felt stupid that moments before I was intending to cycle off into the dark and apparently very dangerous city.

I left the terminal and approached the taxi stop where two taxi drivers sat. They offered an opposing opinion from the worker I had just chatted with and assured me the ride was perfectly safe.

I was happy to hear their optimistic perspective and normally assume that taxi drivers have trustworthy street knowledge so I saddled up and rode into the bustling streets of Acapulco dodging taxis, and weaving in and through the chaos of pedestrians and buses. I was without a map and thus relying on the directions from the cab drivers as well as my own mental image from studying a map two days before. My navigation was superb but was aided by two quick chats I had with locals along the way. Everybody seemed really friendly, all smiles and a laid back vibe

Acapulco, Guerrero
The hotel was set way up on a steep hill overlooking the old town and the Pacific Ocean. There was nobody else staying there and I managed to bargain the price of a large room, with private bath and sweeping views down to $12 US a night. Tourism is down in Mexico, mainly due to bad publicity over the drug war, but also from a depressed global economy and perhaps some legacy of the highly sensationalized 2009 swine flu epidemic. I spent two nights there relaxing and nursing a nasty cold that had been coming on for days.

Acapulco is built over an interesting landscape of big and small-sized bays, steep hills and 1700 m mountains. My hotel had an incredible view. Jungle green mountain tops tower over steep hill-side communities that tumble down to the touristy high-rise condo section along the main bay. Around my hotel is the historic center and there is a mix of newer and older dilapidated buildings with roosters crowing at sunrise and dogs running through the streets. The highlight of the old town is the zocalo, or main square, which is covered in a dense nearly contiguous canopy of gloriously fresh fig trees, that provide an invaluable cooling service to local residents of the steaming Pacific city.
Fig trees belong to the diverse and very important genus Ficus, which contains over 800 species of trees, shrubs, epiphytes and vines. The vines in this genus are known as strangler figs because they wrap around their host impeding secondary growth -increases in trunk or branch girth- and eventually kill their host, overtaking their spot in the canopy and their access to soil resources. Many figs have conspicuously hanging aerial roots that can contact soil and grow into supporting pillars for the overall plant. The development of these irregular supports combined with their tendency to wrap around and strangle host trees or other branches of themselves often results in astonishing forms and impressive size.

Fig tree in Acapulco zocalo

I was excited to find this beautiful shady plaza and then I discovered a particularly impressive fig tree growing in one corner of the plaza. This had an incredible complex of hanging roots, established supports and twisting strangely contorted branches. There was a cafe selling regional food for less than 3$ a plate and I enjoyed two delicious meals under the great shady tree. That for me was the highlight of Acapulco.

My ride out of Acapulco was some of the most intense and stressful riding on the whole trip. I started with a traverse of the touristy town via a three lane road where the right lane is dominated by buses and taxis that pull in and out of it as they please. Making good time as a cyclist then requires riding in the middle lane. But dont get stuck in the middle lane when traffic gets really moving; this is an uncomfortable place to be! Nonetheless, for me this riding is fun and exciting and while it seems impossibly dangerous from a far the reality is that yourself and all the drivers are highly engaged and focussed in this dynamic style of driving.

Acapulco Botanical Gardens

I made a quick stop at the botanical gardens of Acapulco, which are located several kilometers up a very steep and exhausting road off the main highway. The gardens were beautiful and full of cooling shade. A young clone of 'El Tule,' the Taxodium mucronatum of Oaxaca city generally acknowledged to have the widest diameter trunk of any tree on Earth, is growing below the office. In my rush to get to Palenque for Dec 20th and my desire to visit the Oaxacan coast means that I will not detour to Oaxaca City to visit the spectacular tree supported by a whopping 11.62 m thick trunk. At 15 cm in trunk girth this was a very small consolation. My decision not to visit on this trip is also made much easier since I visited it eight years before at which time I had a full and deep appreciation for the gigantic conifer.

After my visit to the gardens I rocketed back down the steep hill then to my displeasure began into another massive hill climb of some 200m. This hill was much worse than the previous climb since it was on a roaring busy 4 lane road with absolutely no space for cycling. I kept a careful eye on my rear view mirror and tucked into the shoulder barrier on several sketchy occasions as big trucks passed, but eventually made it up. I took over the entire lane on the fast 50-60km descent and the taxi behind me was sensible enough not to attempt a pass.

After the hill I restocked my water, bought some dinner food and hit a flat superhighway with little traffic clear put of town. I survived Acapulco! The riding was nice for the rest of the day on shoulders with low traffic volume and as the sun was nearly setting and the temperature finally bearable I found a restaurant owner who was happy to let me camp beside their house, which felt very safe and it was surrounded by beautiful palms.

The next day I pulled into a small village called Las Vigas for water refill and a cheap breakfast. On this trip I am committed to lowering my plastic consumption so I found a water purifier and refilled a 5 L bottle that sits on top my rear rack. They kindly filled it for free. My expenditures on beverages are about 10 pesos or .75$ US a day (ahem, excluding beer of course) and I produce significantly less garbage than an average tourist who buys small containers of water at their convenience. When I am living in my tent, eating simple foods like rice or local fruit and drinking only water my ecological footprint is extremely low. This I truly appreciate about cycle touring because it steers me towards the greatest feeling in life: harmony.

In town I bought tortillas, cheese, beans and eggs and cooked in the main plaza. The villagers were curious of me and finally one old woman with silver teeth decided to approach.She was really funny and interesting to talk to. I shared my water with her and her grand kids and also offed them tacos but they had already eaten. The old woman took an interest in my hot sauce and when I left I offered it to her. She was stoked to accept.  

Towards the end of the day I started seeing a series of impressive parota trees (see pics at bottom of page). I admired several before coming across the largest I have yet seen. The gigantic old tree had a single thick stem rising to about 4 m where it splits into several main branches perhaps nearly a meter thick where they begin. One of its huge branches had evidently been cut off and lay prostrate on the ground on its northwest side.
Massive Parrota tree growing outisde Melaque, Guerrero

The giant is clearly visible on the south side of the road just about one km east of Melanque. It grows in a yard adjacent to several simple one-story dwellings and and there was a clothing wash sink at its base and farm animals running around it. I approached and encountered the señor who owned the land. He was not particularly excited about the large tree but allowed me to walk around and take some photos. The tree is perhaps 40 m tall and like most Parotas has a wide spanning canopy shaped like a half-dome and only leaves along its outer edge. The basal diameter of this tree would be enormous, perhaps 5 m, since its roots are exposed and extend outwards in a gnarled burly manner. This is unusual since most parotas grow straight and direct out of the ground with no taper at the bottom.

I measured the trees girth over its gnarly roots to be about 1.7 m above ground using a rubber hose and then pacing along it with my feet (a very rough method!) to be approximately 2.9 m. Further along in the ride I spotted much younger parota with an enormous and wide canopy.

During one tree admiring stop I strained my knee quite badly while pushing off to continue and it was getting more swollen and worse towards the end of the day. I found a cheap hotel that night and in the morning reluctantly decided to catch a bus for the remaining 230 km into Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca. This decision was mainly due to the knee pain but it would also give me two extra days to hang out in the famously chill beach town.

Melaque Parota as seen from road

Oaxaca State

When I got off in Puerto Escondido my bike was jammed hard and awkwardly into the bus storage compartment enough that it was difficult to remove and when it finally came out the front rack had sustained damage and was bent slightly off quilter. The right shifter was also forced off its solid perch and pitched hard inwards. I felt terrible to have put my noble bike into such a cramped place at the mercy of the baggage checkers but at least I was happy to be in the world famous surf and chill destination. I checked into a nice hostel where I was surrounded by good people and quickly felt at home. Then I received an email that two of my cycling friends, Joanna Smith and Axel Maass (Check Axels blog) who I split from three weeks before were arriving in town in a couple days.

My time in Puerto Escondido was blissful. I met some really interesting people and great friends in the hostel but the main event of each day was a walk to the city market for fresh fruit and veggies, fish and sometimes a chilaquiles breakfast. The market is a bustling social place with all the typical features of a Mexican market: colourful narrow passage ways lined with displays of veggies and fruit; narrow cubicle stands selling single items like cheese, tortillas or fresh fruit juices; a large covered area with dozens to hundreds of butchers selling unusual parts of a variety of meats; merchants displaying arrays of exotic looking spices in large burlap sacks, sometimes with 20 or 30 different dried chiles or moles; an extensive area of small restaurant stands that appear to all offer the exact same dishes; and narrow passages full of clothing and consumer items that almost always have hanging items and plastic tarps low enough that you must duck and dodge your way through them. A distinctive interest I found in the Puerto Escondido market, however, was a 60 m long aisle of florists selling exquisite arrangements of bright tropical flowers I have never seen before. The sweet floral smells were even more pleasing then the flowers themselves.

You can find almost anything in such a large market if you look hard enough or ask around. One day I found kilogram bags of outrageously tasty and nutritious granola for 2$ and on another trip I paid less than 2$ for a half kilogram of fresh hot chocolate powder.

Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
I spent four nights in Puerto Escondido and my knee recovered to nearly full strength. My friends arrived, Joanna from Scotland and Axel from Germany, both heading for Argentina on separate trips, and we made a plan to do the remaining 800 km in eight straight days of cycling. This should not have been so hard as it was.

On our first day we rode along a safe and relatively flat road to Mazunte just 60 km away. This was our first obstacle since the beach was so beautiful and the town so relaxed that I could have stayed a week! Joanna was feeling ill and stayed behind but I forced myself to leave the tropical paradise behind. Me and axel made 110 km that day through suddenly very hilly and tough terrain with no cycling shoulder, intense heat and a terrible afternoon headwind to a tiny village called El Coyul. There was no hotel but the locals said we could camp at the plaza in front of their city hall. This was a funny experience that led to a lot of interaction with the locals, watching an open air movie put on by a christian group and sleeping in the town gazebo.

The next day was another tough one through hilly terrain and after about 70 km we were again into a merciless headwind that made our 120km goal an epic challenge. Here it was wonderful to be riding as two because we were able to take turns drafting off each other and once we were onto the modern toll road that avoids Salina Cruz there was smooth pavement and very little traffic.  

Axel Mass riding away from the coast following a modern toll road. No traffic, smooth road, bike touring at its best.

I noticed that the sun was setting over tall hills to the left of our northbound route and this gave me a strange and surreal feeling. I had been following the coast since leaving my home in Vancouver, nearly 6000 km of cycling plus another 1000 on bus over the last three months, and I enjoyed the steady guidance offered by this simple route. I had watched an untold number of stunning sunsets over endless Pacific breakers, seen vegetation change in incremental shifts, and observed changes in solar altitude and position of the north star caused by latitude. I was so far from my home, friends and family yet somehow connected to home by this massive body of circulating water. Leaving the Pacific was a milestone change in the trip.

As we continued up the quiet scenic road we were passed by two old school touring motor cycles, one with a skateboard conspicuously attached to its back. We recognized each other and they pulled over. It was my good travel acquaintances, a couple traveling south from Edmonton, Canada who I met along the northern mainland coast. Before they zoomed ahead of us we made a plan to meet in Tehauntepec for the night just 20 km ahead. This turned out to be a great arrangement because it was a beautiful colonial city with no tourists, just real Mexican culture and buzzing streets. We updated each other on our trips over beers and then walked into the center for food on the plaza. We got to bed late, which was not a good idea given the challenge to be for our last day in Oaxaca State. 

I met Megan and Jordan from Edmonton a month before this random encounter

A head winds was already blowing when I hit the road and it intensified into roaring gusts by the time I had completed 25 km and stopped for a snack. While I ate my tacos there were clouds of dust blasting into the small taco shack. The winds increased as I entered a massive wind turbine farm suggesting that these winds are normal. My later research would reveal that this area is at the southern edge of the isthmus that geographically connects North America to Central America (the actual tectonic fault lies further south in Guatemala) and that the Gulf of Mexico trade winds funnel through here towards the Pacific, relatively unimpeded by any large mountains. It is so windy here that they have constructed the largest wind farm in North America, beware cyclists!

Diagram of windflow over the isthmus of Tehuantepec (wikispaces)

With great effort I inched along the road at 10 km per hour until finally the road veered east and the tailwind transformed into a side wind. Surprisingly, this was much worse. The gusts were perhaps reaching 70 km an hour with 50 km per hour as a likely average and this caused my bike to swerve madly in accordance with the changing wind strength. I learned quickly that before cars pass its best to pull over because my swerving was sometimes across the entire roadway. One time when I pulled over a gust actually knocked my bike over while it was still under me. This was quite dangerous and extremely exhausting but I was taking it bit by bit and somehow managed to stay very positive about it. The harder it was to get to Palenque for the 20th of December the better it was going to be to get there!

Axel was not at the planed rendezvous for lunch so I cycled on, the wind now easing, and for short blissful moments getting behind me. I stopped after accomplishing 70 km and ate lunch. While I was there Axel caught up to me. I thought he was ahead but it turned out that he had taken a different route and had reportedly even more challenging winds then me. He was exhausted and dispirited but when he saw my optimism for better conditions ahead he perked up. I was thinking that making 135 km on this day might be worth it because it would pit us in an early start position to tackle the massive 28 km long hill that rises out of Chiapas and up into the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. He agreed that starting the infamous hill before the heat of the day might be worth pushing it extra hard so we headed off passing through more seemingly endless wind turbines.

Over the remainder of the day we caught a 30 km period of tailwind before it was again a moderate side and head wind. At 110 km the sun was getting low and beautiful broad mountains ahead lit up in the evening sun. In total exhaustion I pulled over for a sugary beverage, an uncommon expense for me, and some bananas to power me through the last 25 km. Finally, towards the end of the long day we were cycling into a valley cradled in steep mountains. I knew the road did not double back nor veer around them. It was straight ahead and up into the mountains. Thinking about this I felt a strong awareness of the landscapes and a sense of space for the places I had followed along the coast. Every moment of my exhausted cycling into the upward growing hills felt very real and pure. While this day had been unbelievably tough I knew that this steep valley had no outlet; there was no way out, except up. Enter the punishing mountain of Chiapas, a little over 400 km to go to Palenque for the winter solstice, the end of the Mayan calender, or "end of the world as some like to say." Just 400 km more riding, with four days to get there. 

Acapulco tourist condos seen along the bay

Acapulco old town
Acapulco, Guerrero

parota in Guerrero

very large parota canopy, Guerrero
stunning parota specimen at police station outside Melaque

Mazute, Oaxaca

friendly locals in Guerrero insist we take photos with them. Axel on left.

sunrise riding everyday to beat the worst of the heat

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Intro to Mission Rainbow (!) and cycling the coastline of Mexico´s Colima and Michoacan states

Paradise? Manzanillo, Colima
Introduction: Mission Rainbow 
Arriving to the heartland of the ancient Mayan empire by Dec 20th in time for the "end" of the Mayan calender should not be too difficult, right? After all, a 26 000 year astronomical cycle certainly should have given plenty of time to plan around it, but here I was entering Colima, Mexico with a daunting 1880 km of ground to cover by bicycle with less than 20 days to do so. 

When I mention the 20th of December I am often greeted with highly polarized perspectives from those who are excited for supernatural phenomenon or those who have unwavering skepticism and certain denial that the date has any significance. My opinion and expectations are quite distinct from these opposing views but in my mind this is an extremely important period of time for humanity, perhaps less so the specific date.  

It is extraordinary that the most famous and highly developed ancient calender had predicted a great transition precisely in the same time that today´s scientific community recognizes this as a pivotal time for the human race and all life on Earth. Currently, there is an unequivocal consensus among scientists that humans have changed the composition of the atmosphere and surface of the Earth in a way that the global average mean temperature is warming (UNDP 2007).

The geologic epoch known as the Holocene lasted approximately 8,000 years and it was characterised by a remarkably stable and hospitable climate under which human societies and their agriculture thrived. The Mayans thrived, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, our great grandparents, all prospered from the Holocene´s stable climate, which is now over. Welcome to the Anthropocene. This is a new era where humans are a distinct and driving force of global change. Our transformation of Earth has resulted in an estimated global biodiversity extinction rate of around 27,000 species per year. Over 60% of ecosystems are degraded or at risk of degradation and the depressing statistics go on and on. These are troubling to review but important to recognize now while there is still time. Our great grandchildren would be disappointed to learn that we thought the threat to their potential well being was simply to inconvenient to acknowledge.

I had initially heard about the events taking place in Palenque, Mexico on the 21st of December way back in northern California and then decided it was my priority to participate in the international rainbow gathering taking place after an inspiring dream on Nov 15th while in the middle of the Baja California's Vizcaino Desert. My dream occurred while I was already half awake in the early morning and perhaps because of this I remembered it enough to draw a rejuvenating dose of inspiration and optimism that it is indeed possible to change the world. In the dream I was in debate against a faceless, unmovable force of conservative thought yet I managed to unfold a veritable and respectful argument that somehow resonated with the skeptical audience eroding their dogmatic view.

I was unsure what to do with this enhanced positive energy but the dream along with the timing and coincidental circumstances of my bicycle trip in general made me feel like I was moving in the right direction and then I remembered the rainbow gathering in southern Mexico. I researched it online and must admit it sounded pretty flaky and I was still totally confused as to what a rainbow gathering was, but the timing of my dream and the possibility of arriving on bike suggested it was where I needed to be. It was the next step towards a beclouded summit. It was time for "Mission Rainbow."

Colima state
Looking inland at the El Rio Maruaba,  which separates Colima and Jalisco states 

The grand challenge actually seemed possible as I rolled across a long bridge spanning the Rio Maraba into flat Colima state and away from the gnarly hills of Jalisco. My research via other cycling blogs suggested that the coastal road through Colima state is substantially flatter and safer for cycling then those I battled against in Jalisco but that Colima state is tiny and thus offers only a very short section (about 150 km) of easy riding before hitting into the epically tough mountain terrain of Michoacan state.

After camping free and living on less than 10$ per day for the last week I planned to spring for a night in a hotel in Manzanillo and check out the famous tourist destination. When I arrived to The Bahia de Santiago the sun was low on the Pacific horizon and the sand of the sweeping bay was glowing in golden sun. I was tired after the 110km riding so I pulled over to take in the scene and listen to the breakers. I chatted with a couple senores about accommodation possibilities ahead and they warned me of expensive hotels in the center. Instead they recommended a budget option in the nearby village of Santiago. Two young boys on bicycles enthusiastically offered to lead me there, insisting they wanted nothing in return. Knowing I would be fine to arrive on my own I was skeptical to accept, but eventually agreed and they turned out to be awesome kids just wanting to help out.
Manzanillo, Colima
The hotel was a dive, with both daily or hourly rental deals and my room had a ceiling fan that appeared ready to helicopter off its mount plus a small orange lizard living in the light switch. Nonetheless, I was elated to have a shower and wash my clothes. I cooked a large cheap cheap cheap pot of rice with vegetables in the hotel courtyard, which had good wifi, as the majority of Mexican hotels I've visited on this trip do (Nov 2012).

Manzanillo, Colima
The next day I hit the road just after sunrise, again feeling a sense of culture shock to be on the streets of a random Mexican village and headed into a long unpredictable day of adventure and discovery. I cycled into Manzanillo passing through heavy industry and port yards. Frequently I asked the locals for directions so I could avoid the busy freeway. Manzanillo center was quiet when I arrived and offered little excitement but I had a relaxing cookie break along the scenic harbour that was full of small fishing boats and was glad I made the visit.

Several roads pass this area and I had reluctantly chosen the longest route that passed the center of Manzanillo and then followed the coast south. This was a terrible mistake! After leaving the city center the road was extremely rough but then transformed into a spiffy modern highway. In the distance and off to the left appeared an enormous smoke stack that appeared taller than a redwood and spewed thunderstorm-sized masses of dark orange smog into the sky. More smoke stacks appeared as I neared and dense smog obscured the sun, casting the Earth into a doomsday glow (see pic at top). Guards armed with machine guns stared at me as I passed the main gate after which the highway became conspicuously calm and empty. Only a few cars passed and I wondered what was up.

More heavy industry lined the road and soon no cars were traveling down the four lane highway. I pull out my map to confirm this route is correct, then continue with a strong sense that something is wrong. Not a soul is near to ask directions so I pedal onwards. Finally, a 10m high wall of boulders runs perpendicular to the road, cutting off my route and dirt tracks run in both directions along the wall. A car emerges from one dirt track so I flag it down for questioning. They look at me with sympathy and explain "no hay puente;" there was no bridge. I climb up the boulders to see a 100 m gap of choppy blue ocean separating me from the highway clearly visible on the other side. Blasted!

This was extremely frustrating, mainly because my map produced by the official Mexico department of transportation, the SCT, had failed me and also that no signs had warned me. I reluctantly double back, retracing my route into a light headwind. Fortunately, after talking to some locals I find a small detour that brings me through a tiny village, along the walls of the industrial plant, onto a stony railway path and then over a long half-finished bridge and back to the actual highway. Two hours of fast cycling later I finally reach the other side of the channel where the bridge was out. This was a discouraging start to my day but it could have been worse and the essential travelers advice to "always ask the locals if your not sure," was reinforced in my mind.

From there I cycled hard along the flat four lane highway trying to make up for lost ground and after 80 km on my odometer I stopped at a roadside shop for a cheap and incredibly rejuvenating coconut. Soon after this I was in mid-day heat and stopped for lunch. During lunch I usually write or study Spanish but this time I studied my maps to get an accurate estimate of how far I had left to Palenque and assess if the objective is possible.  

Mecico marijuana production map (various US and
Mexican gov´t departments)
I calculated that from there I had a total of 1800 km to go to Palenque, which made the 40 km lost in the morning seem all the more frustrating. Arriving on the 20th of December was possible but I had promised myself not to push my body too hard right from the onset of the trip. Traveling some more on bus seemed like an attractive alternative. Also, I had been advised by several people including police officers that the Michoacan coast is slightly dangerous with occasional incidences of robbery and conflict between officials and the local drug trade. On the Internet I found a map produced by the CIA showing that the Michoacan coast upto Acapulco is a primary marijuana growing and trafficing region in Mexico and I read one seasoned Michoacan travelers report that the initial section when entering from Colima is particularly risky. I decided to take a short bus trip then cycle the rest.

I rode the final 20 km into Tecoman then boarded a bus for Maruata, Michoacan. Traveling by bus or taking rides is a sticky issue for cycle tourists. Many despise the idea, as I once did, but I had accepted it as a possibility from the beginning of this trip mainly due to my past knee injuries. During my first trip on bicycle I became enlightened to the simple beauty and rich experience of traveling on bicycle. It satisfies my need for physical exercise and enhances interaction with local culture, connection to the landscape and overall sense of place. Because these fundamental motives for travel are so well satisfied while on bicycle I find it very difficult to travel in any other mode; however, there are also enormous challenges, dangers and sometimes great hardships associated with this manner of travel as well as a reduced exposure to some important travel experiences due to exhaustion and for some people the need to cover distance in a nearly perpetual manner.

To optimize my overall well being and travel experience as well as moderate the risks associated with bike travel I am experimenting with accepting rides and traveling by bus. Potential hazards such as traffic, robbery and sickness are present in varying degrees but they can often be identified and the chances of their occurrence reduced through appropriate risk management strategies. In this case I was catching a bus through an area that I had assessed to be particularly hazardous for robbery. And, I was lazy!

Michoacan state

Map showing Michoacan highlighted. Colima is the much
smaller state to the left also located on the coast.
I sat in glee as the bus effortlessly maneuvered us through 90 km of twisting and tumbling mountain terrain. During the ride I made friends with a friendly couple, Manuela from Spain and Victor from Italy, and we got off together and walked through the quiet spread-out village of Maruata to the beach where most accommodation is located. We found a family offering space to camp or sleep in hammocks under their beach palapa for about 2.5$ US. After setting up I jumped into the refreshing waves of the now dark ocean and Victor and Manuela went into town for beer. We sat on the beach for hours chatting in Spanish about our trips, myself with lots to share of my last few days spent alone.

Maruata is just a tiny village on a very sparsely populated coast and the stars here are brilliant. Quite late in the night as we finished our final beers, an orange, nearly full moon peeked over the wall of steep mountains that rimmed the southern edge of the long bay. It was a spectacular moon rise and I felt a really strong sense of vitality and appreciation to have arrived to such a striking setting. To my great relief the temperature dropped steeply during the night until it was fresh and cool, allowing me to sleep comfortably without sweating and sticking to my sleeping mat.

Layed back village of Maruata, Michoacan
The beach had such a peaceful relaxed vibe that I decided to stay another night. This day was spent with my mew friends exploring the several beaches around Maruata, which include the long bay where we camped and sea turtles lay their eggs, and several others that are smaller and more dramatic with sea caves and canyon like walls roaring with crashing waves. Maruata did have a vibe of danger, as noticed for example when our host insisted that we lock all of our valuables inside their house and keep nothing in the tent, but it was still one of the most tranquil and beautiful places I had seen on my entire journey down the Pacific Coast.

The next day I hit the highway just as the glowing red sun appeared over the dry jungly hills. Several locals were waiting for buses at the junction and almost all who noticed stopped what they were doing and curiously stared as I headed away from town into the jungly hills. Almost immediately, I was into a steep hill climb that went on for several kilometers before dropping  into a ravine before commencing another long demanding climb. During one large uphill, I passed by an enormous tarantula crossing the roadway. It was about 12 cm across and had furry orange striped legs. I watched it closely for about 10 minutes knowing it was a peaceful, almost totally harmless creature.
Large tarantula about 12-15 cm across (5-6 inches)

Along many of the steep road banks I saw huge Iguanas some nearly a meter long that always scampered straight uphill when they saw me coming. The area felt like a real jungle and indeed it is so. Inland from the Michoacan coast, only scattered dirt roads penetrate the essentially uninhabited Sierra Madre del Sur marked by 2000m summits in close proximity to the sea. I could only imagine what snakes, cats and spiders inhabited the range but the more imminently dangerous ones, as I was about to find out, were right along the coast.

While passing a restaurant I pulled over to inspect a sweeping view of the coastline but was accosted by a pack of seven frantic dogs. As the posse of barking dogs approached I fearlessly dismounted causing them to back off their chase in fear of what I might be planning. I was ready to grab rocks and defend myself.  They continued to bark and stayed near until I exited via a steep downhill grade. They were unable to catch me but at the bottom of the hill my momentum gradually slowed and I approached a large speed bump. Suddenly an enormous Rottweiler came tearing out from beside a house. I looked back and saw a terror of conspicuously bulging muscles and a gaping evil jaw. He caught up with me in moments and I was helpless to escape with the large speed bump just ahead.

I relaxed and slowed down with the idea that my tranquility might cause him to become disinterested in the chase but I was stupidly wrong. With unwavering momentum he ran up behind me and with jaws wide open sunk his teeth into my rear right pannier. The beast must have weighed nearly 50 kilos because this caused my bike to slow down, swerve and nearly topple into the middle of the road. I was shocked that he had the nerve. He let go, fell back, then ran back up and bit once more into my back pannier. I was furious and adrenalin surged through my veins. I slammed the breaks dismounted and was ready to kill the enormous dog (somehow?). As I did this he ran off satisfied with his bite and perhaps partly scared by my energetic reaction as well as another senor who got to his feet after watching the scene unfold. I looked at my bag to see two big holes in my previously waterproof panniers.

I lost it at this and yelled "F%*{{!!!" Then translated my curse into spanish adding the words "madre" and "perro" in a powerful voice, loud enough so that the whole village could hear. The two señores directly in front of me were shocked, but I am quite sure they understood to some degree my frustration. That was the first time in my whole trip that something really got to me and I felt very bothered and distraught as I rode off determined to never permit another dog to bother me again.

note the sharp spine in this botanical
illustration of a legume plant
(by Britton and Brown)
At first I found a few stones but then tossed the meager weapons aside as I came across a stick made for the job. It was from a shrubby legume plant, yes from the same taxon of ecologically important plants that fix atmospheric nitrogen into soil and produce pod-like fruits that to some degree resemble beans or peas. Apparently, the plants belonging to this group do not just nourish us and our soils but they also produce fantastic “dog sticks.” This one was stiff with excellent whipping power and had a pair of razor sharp, 3 cm long spines sticking out from each leaf axel. I pruned it down a bit and attached it for easy reach to my rear pannier then rode off with a wild smile across my face.

About half an hour later I realize that the stick might be excessive, perhaps capable of actually blinding a dog. Then I started feeling a bit crazy to have this thorny twisted stick hanging off my bike. I descended into a deep and moody state that only eased once I took a mental step back and reminded myself that dogs are a type 2 fun, meaning that while they suck at the time they are fun to laugh about later. Then soon after this a black sedan loaded with a family packed in passed me and an old señora stuck her head out the window and yelled "hello" in an awkward accent. Typically it is only the men who yell “howdy,” “hello,” or some other slightly embarassing salutation so this made me laugh and I thanked her for lifting my spirit. I further regained my composure by reminding myself of the greater mission ahead. I knew it was not supposed to be easy. 

The second half of the day's ride was considerably flatter and I ended my day in the town of Caleta de Campos, where I ran into Manuela and Victor and then stayed in the same hotel as them. Since my rest day in Maruata was so enjoyable and also seemed essential to the greater travel experience I decided I would catch a bus for nearly 300 of the remaining 360 km to Acapulco and then spend at least one day there. This made for an easy morning ride to Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan that was fairly uneventful except for a very enjoyable stop for morning snacks. As I pulled into a tienda for water and bread I was greeted by the most enthusiastic and positive person I think I have ever met. He had spent considerable time in the United States and he was delighted to meet me and sell me bread. While I relaxed and ate my bread he interpreted what all the passing trucks were carrying as he buzzed back and forth across his simple storefront. He told me about the iron mine opened up across the road and how clever he thought the Chinese were to be there mining it. He also introduced me to each customer that came to his store. One construction worker would not believe me that I had travelled on bike from Canada. Finally, I pointed to my beard and he realized it was true. We all laughed. 

 The people in Mexico are so incredibly kind, open and friendly that it makes cycling alone a relatively easy task. Speaking generally from my observation over five months cumulative travel in Mexico, the priority of Mexicans during social interaction is to be easy going and create a positive vibe or “honda” that then spreads out towards the next interaction and greater social community. You notice the importance of sustaining the good vibe when negative "honda" emerges and people become uneasy until it is somehow resolved. It is crazy to think that I would be missing all of this good cheer if I did not speak Spanish. The generosity and enthusiasm of the locals has become a constant and valued stream of inspiration on this trip. It energizes my spirit and helps transform my wild dream into a real adventure. Rainbow gathering here I come! 

Beautiful volcano north west of Manzanillo, Colima
Morning break in Manzanillo, Colima

View from bridge under construction during an unexpected detour near Manzanillo, Colima
Colima state. Note the flatness, which is very rare on Mexico´s Pacific Coast
$2.5 a night. Beats a luxury hotel in my opinion. Maruata, Michoacan 

Maruata, Michoacan

Maruata, Michoacan

Maruata, Michoacan

Ceiba tree, Michoacan. These things get huge!
up and down, up and down. 
huge tree of some kind!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mainland Mexico begins. Big trees and solitude

On September 7th, 2012, I left home in Vancouver, BC to cycle down the entire west coast of the United States on a mission visit the world's largest tree (a giant sequia) as well as record specimens of western red-cedar, Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce and others species. I regret that I did not have time to blog these experiences but since arriving in southern Mexico I have slowed my pace and have time for an update. Here is a short summary of cycling down the Pacific coast of Mexico from Mazatlan to Manzanillo, through the states of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco, and the big trees I found on route.

Mainland Mexico: Nayarit and Jalisco states.

Every morning when I wake up and start my day of cycling I experience a heavy dose of culture shock. Before this trip I had already travelled extensively in Latin America including Mexico, but seeing the vibrant Mexican culture and landscape on bicycle is an entirely new experience for me. In previous trips I have travelled by bus, a relatively safe and sheltered travel mode, but now I am entirely exposed to the culture, the elements, the animals and all else that defines the foreign experience. I am a player in the chaos of mexican highways, exposed on my left to passing buses and trucks, on my right to terrifying chase dogs and from above to a burning tropical sun. Perhaps a more significant change as of late is that I am now alone.

Me and James arrived together to Mazatlan on the Mexican mainland via ferry from La Paz, Baja California Sur, where we then caught a bus to Tepic in Nayarit state. The purpose of bussing was to get safely out of Sinaloa State, where the drug war is quite active and a Canadian was recently shot dead (mind you, circumstances suggest he may not have been a peaceful tourist like ourselves). In Tepic we again loaded our bikes onto another bus bound for San Blas, a coastal fishing village with tranquil and very cheap surf camps. The village of San Blas is so ideal for travelers like ourselves that we got stuck in it for two weeks on our backpacking trip here eight years ago and James planned to spend three weeks there this time to recharge before heading home to work.

I remained there for four nights and then hit the road alone with the intention to make it to Palenque, in Chiapas state by Dec 21, but also to escape the horrible san fleas and mosquitoes, which is the village's one major draw back. San Blas is in the middle of a huge mangrove forest so the first 5 km of cycling was along a raised roadway through swampy forest. Mangrove forests occur in intertidal zones and are composed of highly specialized tree species called mangroves that tolerate salty ocean water, anaerobic soils and other challenges associated with being inundated at hightide. They are extremely important as breeding grounds for fish and have a recognized ability to stabilize coast lines and buffer Tsunami impacts, though, they are in decline worldwide due to coastal development. I was delighted to ride my bike through this one, especially during the peaceful early hours of morning.

Over that day I rode 120 km through humid tropical forests completely unlike the deserts we had been cycling through on the Baja California. There were big broadleaf trees arching over the roadway,
coconut plantations along the side of the highway and previously unseen roadkill species along the roadway. These included an armadillo, several possums, a 10 cm long grasshopper and numerous snake skins, some up to 2 m long. Seeing roadkill is a grim reality of traveling by bike but it gives a lot of insight into the local fauna. I ended that day in another chill but much more touristy village called Sayulita.

After a very peaceful rest day there I did a short day into Puerto Vallarta. On the way into town I was distracted by a carpentry shop with enormous slabs of wood and thick trunks displayed on the road that were well over 2 m in diameter. For the past five weeks I had been traveling through arid ecosystems and had hardly thought at all about big trees. There simply were not any on route. I parked my bike and went inside to talk to the carpenters. They were very friendly and happy to tell me what species of tree they were and to also show me a nearby live specimen. It was the same magnificent leguminous trees I had seen arching over the road way between San Blas and Sayulita. In the trees I had seen I had admired their thick arching arms, wide-spreading canopy and delicate leaves that somewhat resemble the stunning leaves of maiden hair ferns back home. It was the parota, known as guanacaste in english (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) and it grows all along the Pacific Coast of Central America right into northern Brazil and Venezuela.

They told me there were much larger specimens then the trunks they had there but they were way up in the mountains and it would be very complicated for me to visit. Unfortunately, they were not to interested in taking me. Nonetheless, I left their shop reinvigorated on big trees and with a list of names of other large growing trees in the region. Since these inital encounters I have become intrigued to locate the largest specimens of parota but it appears to not be published on the web and given the large range this may be very difficult to do.
I was starting to realize that Mexico has some fine trees worth seeking out but knew that they would not be so easy to discover. My spanish is now quite good after two big trips in latin america and several classes in university but a language barrier still impedes my research. Also, the details and locations of Mexico's large trees are simply not as well documented as they are in the US and in Canada, or once again the language barrier makes it more difficult for me to find them on the internet.

Big tree thoughts were on my mind as I cycled south into the steep mountains and thriving jungle of the Jalisco coast. This day began with a 25 km long hill climb made extra challenging by the extreme humidity and unseasonably hot weather that was pushing into the mid 30's. I didnt make it far before I pulled over for my lunch of avocados and bread where a beautiful waterfall cascaded about 20 m down through jungle vegetation. Tourist caravans from Puerto Vallarta zoomed past me missing the joy of the jungle experienced while on bike. Stunning white butterflies probably 15 cm wide circled around in the canopy above and strange sounding birds called from within the jungle. As I was about to leave I finally noticed a massive, unfriendly-looking but beautiful spider in its web right beside where I was sitting. This spooked me a bit, since I assumed the spider could probably do some serious harm but it also stoked me for the discovery ahead.

This spider was about 3 to 4 inches from leg tip to leg tip. 
Slowed by the big hill and dizzying humidity I made little ground that day almost stopping to stay in a hotel after just 44km. Without any specific destination in mind I decided to cycle onwards and about 30 km I yelled down to some campesinos outside their house if they knew where I could camp. They responded by inviting me down and offering that I camp in their driveway. I was delighted by this because their property was shaded by huge parota trees and set beside a tranquil stream flowing around big smooth stones, some with colourful strange ducks sitting on top of them. 

Jungle covered mountain just south of Puerto Vallarta on the Jalisco Coast

After bathing in the stream I cooked my simple rice dinner and began talking to one of their sons who I guessed was about my age. He took care of their cattle and knew the countryside well so I asked if there were bigger trees around. He responded that they surely were but nothing convenient for me to visit, but then recalled that there was an ancient tamarind (Tamarindus indus) tree just 4 km further along the highway.

In the morning I packed my things and hit the highway on route to the old tamarind tree I was instructed that the tree is located in a tiny village called Santa Cruz, about 400 m off the highway beside the village's church.

The road leading off the highway was tortuously rough cobble stone like they often are in Jalisco state so I walked my bike. A little ways in I asked a woman if she knew where the church was and she looked at me like I was blind then pointed at the little roof right beside her. The church was evidently nothing impressive but the tree beside it was indeed so. It was many times bigger than the little "church" and It looked very old. It had a wide base of about 2.4 m dbh that split into two trunks low to the ground. These trunks then diverged into a number of old gnarled twisted branches some of which drooped downwards than twisted back up, and one long branch that extended towards the church had a large church bell, about 1 foot diameter hanging from it.

It was beautiful yet a bit creepy and mangled looking, though, as far as I could tell it appeared solid and healthy. It was the kind of tree that one might feel uneasy camping under while alone on a foggy night. As I took some photos a señor walked up the street so I asked him about the tree. He told me it was 518 years old as known from what he explained to be a scientific measurement that he did not really understand. I suspect this must have been from a tree core extracted from the trunk of the tree to count the annual growth rings.

Tamarindo tree at Santa Cruz claimed to be 518 years old
This would be an exceptional age for a tropical tree to grow if it were true, but it cannot be so. Tamarind trees are native to Africa, and it seems impossible that they could have arrived in Mexico 518 years ago since the first Europeans are believed to have arrived in 1492 as captained by Christopher Columbus.. However, the tree may be at least several hundred years old since Tamarind was apparently introduced into Mexico in considerable abundance in the 16th century (according to wikipedia).

The rest of the day was productive riding through remote countryside with few towns and at around 100 km distance I began to look for a place to camp. It just so happened that I came a across a university's biologic research station. I thought they would surely welcome a fellow biology student to camp for the night on there grounds, right? But to my dismay they rejected me. This bothered me a lot, especially since it was a 2 km long hill climb to the station, but I guess they have concerns with liability and the manager did not want to risk any extra responsibility. It seems to me, based on experiences like this and my notice of Walmarts and Burger King in every city, that Mexico is on a fast track to becoming more American. A lot has changed since my last visit in 2004.

My rejection at the biological station turned out to be alright because I ended up camping at an absolutely stunning beach called Playa Careyitos. The beach was semi-private and the gate was locked at night so it was relatively safe for solo beach camping, something I would normally avoid. As soon I arrived I ran down the steep sandy beach and jumped into the crashing waves still wearing my greasy, smelly cycling clothing. It was a late arrival and i watched the sunset int the ocean while swimming. As I cooked dinner the sand fleas and mosquitoes came out in attack mode forcing me to change into long sleeves and pants. This was terribly uncomfortable since it was still in the mid 30s and extremely humid. The bugs have been awful at several places along on the mainland Mexican coast and when its hot out you become confronted with the dilemma of getting swarmed into a mentally aggravated state or sweating your pants off.

The humidity persisted through the night and when I woke up my tent and pretty much everything was soaked. I hit the road, once again with a crazy feeling inside of heading into the unknown. This mysterious feeling was certainly enhanced by the pockets of mist swirling in an out of dry tropical jungle. The morning was pure climbing and I must have drank 5 L of water by noon when I finally topped over the last giant hill in Jalisco state.
Last big hill climb in Jalisco State
After flying down that long curving hill it was flat cruising through little towns full of entertaining street life and I was soon crossing a long bridge over the Rio Maraba into Colima State, which provided much less challenging riding through quite flat terrain. I sprang 12$ for a really crapy, somewhat gross hotel room in Manzanillo that night. The bed was hard and there was a little orange lizard living inside the light switch but the room gave me opportunity to wash my cycle clothing and I assure I rested very well.
Beach Camping at Sayulita, Nayarit in a coconut palm forest

Jalisco Coast

I always ride at sunrise. Its a beautiful time of day and much less strenuous than under the mid-day sun

Near the southern end of Jalisco Coast
this picture does not capture the incredible humidity on this day!

Large logs at an unofficial looking roadside log sort

some white birds I see everywhere

Beautiful Volcano just inside Colima State