As we weren’t too stoked on the idea of beginning our first bike tour trying to fight our way out of the speeding tangle of traffic that is Mexico city, we opted instead to leave by bus and head 1.5 hours east to Puebla (Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza).
It´s been easy to take our bikes on buses. The private first class buses let us put them down below in the luggage holders at no extra charge and we don´t bother to package them up at all, just leave our panniers and stuff strapped on so it’s easy to load and unload them. One time a guy loading luggage onto our bus tried to tell us that we had to pay $150M more to bring our bikes because they didn’t count as luggage. Since this was more than the friggin’ bus tickets themselves and nobody else had ever mentioned this, we protested with him for about 10 minutes until he finally put our gear on, scribbling a note on our luggage ticket for the guys unloading at our destination saying that we should pay. When we arrived, however, they either didn´t see or just didn´t care about his note. Nice try buddy.
We´ve gotten the bikes onto bigger public buses and a mini shuttle-bus too. On the big buses we just hauled them in thru the rear door and took up the whole back seat and the end of the asile. The driver didn´t charge any extra and the other passengers were happy to help us stabilize our bikes during the whole ride. I guess that by providing enough foreign weirdo novelty we´re worth the hassle. On the little public shuttle bus the driver put down the back seat for one of the bikes and the other one rode in front near the sliding door. This time we paid extra to bring the bikes because we were taking up space that the driver could have filled with paying customers. But there you go: if you want to take your bike on a really nice sight-seeing bus tour of Mexico, it is totally doable.
But back to Puebla. FIRST OFFICIAL BIKE TOUR RIDE FULLY LOADED! HOLY SHIT! Riding from the bus station to our hotel. YEAH! Feelin good! Got our helmets on with tiny rear view mirrors attached, our neon orange reflector vests (just like they wear in Chile… thanks Mom!) and our dingy bells just in case people don’t notice the two gringos on huge loaded bikes covered in safety gear…OMG, so much fun. Peter´s homemade bucket pannier fell off in the road about 3 minutes into our tour but there weren’t many cars around at that point luckily, so major suckage avoided. He then quickly improved the sitch with a old bike tube rigging system that would make Micah proud.
We caught a bite at some local joint where the waitress thought that our request for salad dressing was really weird (whatever, I know that there is dressing in Mexico! What is this?) and then they tried to pass off plantain and cheese chilies rellenos as normal. Back at the hotel we watched South Park in Spanish and went to bed early because bike touring across town is exhausting!
The next day (April 2nd) we went to the Museo Amparo. Set in a beautiful old colonial building this museum has rooms full of awesome and bewildering pre-Spanish artifacts, mostly strange ceramic figurines and pottery. Once again there was a lack of any relevant cultural context like cosmology, science ,or mythology, either because anthropologists and curators don´t know, or because they don´t want us to know. Stupid.
Without context, looking at hundreds of ancient pots can make your eyes glaze a little (maybe not yours, Greg), but the strange faces of the figurines and their exaggerated body parts, the sculptures of elaborate gods, and beautifully knapped flint knives leave you aching to know why these things were made. What the Aztecs and Mayans and Olmecs know and think about the universe that most of us today have completely forgotten?
On April 3rd we took a day trip to the largest pyramid in the world: the great Pyramid of Cholula.
It´s base is 1,480 by 1,480 ft and it stands 217 ft high. It’s not as tall as the Pyramid at Giza, but it’s volume, (estimated at over 4.45 million cubic meters) makes it not only the biggest pyramid, but also the largest monument ever constructed anywhere in the world! What the F! Today it looks like a grassy hill. Hard to tell that it’s one of the most staggering things on the planet sitting in the longest inhabited city in the Americas.
It is unknown exactly who built it, though mythology says it was a giant called Xelhua. It is known that it was constructed in consecutive layers, one pyramid on top of the last, over thousands of years and was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the famous feathered serpent god of knowledge. When the Spanish arrived they thought it was a natural mountain due to its overgrown condition but once they found out the truth they had to get a piece of the action. In typical childish form they knocked down the altars from atop the pyramid and built a church in its place. The church however, got struck by lightning and burnt down. Of course! This is the biggest shrine in the world they were trying to mess with, not just some kid’s stuff. Not taking the hint though, they rebuilt the church. Sometime later lightning struck it AGAIN!! They rebuilt that church a second time. And then that shit got hit by lightning A THIRD TIME!!! Now, if it were me, I think I might be concerned about bad omens or at least discouraged by the conductivity of my site but the Spanish seemed to take all this as a sign from God that they were totally in exactly the right spot. Persistence pays off though, and there is a big ugly church on top of the pyramid today.
There are excavated tunnels that cut across the interior layers of the pyramid but they were closed to tourists when we visited. Bummer. But we did get to eat chili flavored fried grasshoppers.
We contented ourselves to checking out the excavated complex around the pyramid, which included a big arena like area that was built to refract sound and create crazy echos. There were three beautifully carved stone slabs there, two on their sides like altars and one standing up like the 2001 A Space Odyssey monolith. It was nice to imagine the courtyard full of people and clouds of incense with drumming and singing echoing off the walls. It was also fun to watch tourists walking in single file behind their guides clapping as they passed the slabs to hear the chirping reverberations.
Leaving, we were graced to witness a traditional dance in the plaza across from the pyramid. Today the dance is called La Danza de los Voladores, or the dance of the flyers, though no one knows exactly where or why it originated. In it, four dancers climb a 30 meter pole and sit on a ring balanced on top of it. A fifth man plays music while the dancers begin to spin the balancing ring and connect themselves to the pole with ropes. They then all fall off of the pole at the same moment and slowly descend to the ground while spinning, or flying around the center pole. The dance is used as an offering to appease gods and to help bring rain. It was very beautiful to watch their grace in descent.
When we got back to Puebla, we went to this National Railway Museum since we were in the neighborhood and it was cheap (M$12). There were tons of different kinds of engines and train cars from steam run to modern monsters. You could go inside or at least climb on most of them and there was also a great gallery with nice large format Mexican train yard photography in it.
Wednesday, April 4th, we went to Bioreserva Tehuacán-Cuicatlán which is about two hours southeast of Puebla. The Sierra Madres block rainfall in this region, creating a unique niche that now hosts endemic species of cacti. The elephant´s foot tree, the century plant, giant barrel cacti, tiny purple cacti, chubby fuzzy guys- all rad.
We practiced our nature photography and smoked some Cordao (Leonotis nepetaefolia), a wild plant that Peter identified growing on the Cholula pyramid and which is supposed to have a mild calming and euphoric effect. But we apparently gathered the wrong part of the plant…go for the leaves guys, not the flowers. The camping grounds and cabins at the Reserva were much more developed than we had expected, but there weren’t many trails through the park and bush-whacking in the hot afternoon sun through a cactus forest is not the most fun activity. Oops.
On April 5th we took a bus back to Puebla and FINALLY started our bike tour for reals. Destination: Oriental. Getting out of the city was definitely not a bad as Mexico City would have been, but it was still scary. So many big buses and potholes and quickly merging lanes! It took us about 20 minutes to get out of the city and really onto the highway which was covered in glass and really fast moving cars. Luckily the slow lane was practically empty, and the shoulder was usually fairly big. So we stayed close together and did just fine. Warning: Don´t expect Mexican road and highway signs to be any help at all. Those things were put there to confuse you and get you lost, so don’t be fooled. It definitely helps to not only know where you’re going, but to know the names of as many town in-between as possible, and if you can, the names of the towns and highways you’re not trying to go to too. Look up directions (including distances) before you go and write them down!
Somehow after an hour or two of Carretera Federal 150, we managed to find Carretera Federal 129 which is really a lovely country road, especially in comparison to the hot loud highway. We tried a bit before 129 to take a toll road towards Oriental but they wouldn’t let us on it. That was the only time we were not allowed on a toll road. All other times we were just waved on through. We had left Puebla around 2 PM so it was late afternoon at this point and it felt great to be biking past tilled fields and countryside as the air cooled and the sky changed colors. We were on the lookout for our first stealth camp site.
We wanted a good patch of trees and bushes that was far away from any buildings or signs of people and would totally hide us from the road or any passers-by. But as the light faded we realized there wasn’t much to choose from where we were. The tree lines were all too thin, on steep hills, or beyond tilled fields that we didn’t want to drag our bikes through. It was starting to get dark and there was a small town up ahead that we didn’t want to get closer to so we picked a crappy stand of trees which would hide us from the road but was near another, small, seemingly unused country road. Seemed like it would do ok if we didn’t put up the tent or use any lights. Or so we thought.
We had just tucked into our sleeping bags when a truck drove up the road with a searchlight on the trees. Turned out to be the Federales (the federal police) who had been told that we were there (we were spotted by a driver on the main road) and now wanted to know what we were doing and to see our passports. Aw crap. Jorie at first didn’t want to show hers, as we had heard some Federales will steal passports.She tried to say that she only had a photocopy with her and that her actual passport was with a friend in Xalapa. When they threatened to take us in the immigration office back in Puebla, we changed tactics. They told us we couldn’t stay there, duh, and since there were no hotels for miles our only option seemed to be to sit up all night at the 24 hour gas station nearby. As we were packing up Jorie noticed the cops eyeing her new digital camera which was clipped to her bike basket. Should have grabbed it right then. She went to pick up one other bag and when she turned around again the camera was gone. “I’d rather give you money than have you take my camera,” she said. But their only cold blooded answer was, “We are only doing our job. We didn’t take anything. You must have lost it. Here is the flashlight so you can look for it.” Stupid corrupt pigs with high salaries, armed to the theeth.
This is how they roll, p.s: Thugged out in their pickups with ski masks, tons of armor and semi-automatics drawn all the time on the quietest streets. Just doing our job, trying to intimidate people, ma’am…
Oh well. All in all, we were really lucky and spent the rest of the night at the gas station evaluating the bad omen of our first night and deciding not to do any more stealth camping unless it felt and looked totally right.
The next day was my (Jorie’s) birthday! I turned a quarter of a century years old and had a whole day of biking to think about all the lessons I´d learned in the past year including why pigs and electronics don´t mix. We had a really good spaghetti and soup breakfast and rode through miles and miles of terribly marked gorgeous country roads. In the early afternoon we got yelled at in English by some people on the side of the road ¨My friends! A drink! I invite you!¨ And a family who was excited to practice their language skills bought us sodas and told us about their Harley Davidson Motorcycle and asked if we liked tuna. They even offered to drive us to their home an hour north to stay. It was great.
At this point we had decided to skip the sight at Oriental and push on to Xalapa but as evening approached with a killer head wind, we ended up slacking and took a bus the last 25 miles to Xalapa.
Xalapa (also spelled Jalapa) is the capital of Veracruz state and is not too far from the Gulf Coast. It´s a hilly city, lush, humid and paved with dark cobblestones. We stayed close to the cathedral which was having a silent procession of the idol of the Virgin that night for holy week (Semana Santa). Passing us as we were on our way to eat, thousands of people with candles filled the streets, following the statue to the cathedral plaza. They marched on somberly for at least ten minutes and were still coming when we turned off the main road. It was like a birthday parade!
El Museo de Antropología in Xalapa, the reason why we came here, is one of the mest museums in the country for it’s impressive collection of artifacts, giant carved statues and stones, and for having several of the mysterious and badass Olmec Heads. The Museum website has a nearly complete catalog of all the items in the museum so you can visit it without having to go on bike tour!
Really crazy were the deformed or reformed human skulls. So pointy. So flat. Was this just to signify social status and be aesthetically pleasing or was there another more functional purpose? A little googling turned up that cranial modifications have been practiced all over the world from ancient Egypt to some Native American tribes (Chinookan, & Choctaw) and continues currently in the island nation of Vanuatu. Probably there is different cultural significance in all of these cases, but it’s strange that it has had such global popularity. As we’ve found at most Mexican Archaeology museums so far, there is little information to go with the artifacts beyond detailed descriptions of exactly what you’re already looking at, so who knows?
Olmec heads are the real draw though and why we were there. The Olmecs are considered to be the “Mother Culture” to the Maya, Inca and Aztecs. No one knows why they mysteriously disappeared in the past and all they have left in their wake are stone glyphs and stellae (showing the earliest forms of the famous “Mayan” Calendar) as well the 17 of these colossal heads that have been found to date. Weighing up to 55 tons each, some over 10 feet tall, these solemn faces with strange hats, plugged ears and African features were perfectly chiseled out of huge boulders, some of which were moved dozens of miles from where they were originally quarried. Each one features a unique face but exactly who they are meant to represent, and why, is the real mystery. Indeed, looking at these faces it is pretty hard to disagree with the fact that these people don’t look like the indigenous people in Mexico. What do you think? Perhaps they look like people from Africa? Or Samoa? So, the question then becomes, if these people did not live in ancient Mexico, did they have contact with the people that did? Contemporary scholars would proclaim a deafening “NO!” But, then, again, they don’t have any good answers for these questions themselves.
That day we rode out of Xalapa in search of beach. The ride out of the city was really scary. There was so much fast traffic and so little shoulder and it was raining and the highway signs didn’t fail to suck. If a highway sign points to a left hand exit, do not get in the left lane until you see the exit. Holy crap, these things faltan! On the upside, the ride was pretty much all downhill once we did get out of town and we discovered that we could fill our bike tires to a krispy-hard pressure using the Pemex gas station air pumps for free. Sweet! The rest of the day was a nice cruise to Cardel, close to the coast but not quite there. When we arrived we found the cheapest half star joint to crash at and got a sixer at the super to recharge the body good.
Aahhhhhhh this is the life…….
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