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 seƱor 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


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