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Jun 02

Give me dirt and I’ll give you sweat, blood and tears. Just give me dirt. The back roads of Oaxaca.

I have a rule: The first time I see food or drink being sold on the side of the road, I must buy it. I was overjoyed to by mezcal from this grandmother. Cost me a whopping $3 for a litre

Tony and I have being seeing a lot of highway the last few months – mile after mile of gray, burning asphalt, accompanied by the rattle of trucks braking, and the ever present highly-intoxicating smell of dust and fumes.  More affectionately, this endless strip that connects the world is poetically referred to as “The Road”, a vague and alluring concept that is loved more for the landscapes it winds through and the promise of places to come than it is for its enticing super-elevated curves or courteous road signs.  Tony and I love the road, and to be sure we have many many more kilometers of road remaining ahead of us, but when we arrived in Oaxaca we knew it was time to get off the asphalt on back onto the dirt.

So, whilst enjoying the ample charms and culinary delights that the city of Oaxaca has to offer, Tony and I popped in and said hello to Pedro Martinez of Pedro Martinez Bike Tours.  Pedro, former mountain biking

Around the corner the hearts of the mezcal cactus lie in a pile

champion of Oaxaca, is an incredibly down-to-earth and friendly guy and so he was happy to offer Tony and I some advice on some good back road routes to check out.  For starters, he gave me the low-down on the Pueblos Mancomunados up in the Sierras northeast of Oaxaca City, and then he followed that up with a fantastic route on dirt tracks from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido.  Both routes weave there way through mountains and small isolated Oaxacan villages.  More importantly, both routes promise a lot of dirt.

To the hills!  The Pueblos Mancomunados.

Fitted out with new mountain biking tires (our third set of tires for this trip) and a fresh pair of brake pads, Tony and I headed for the hills.  We spent a laborious week exploring the Sierras and the Pueblos Mancomunados by bike and by foot.  Set up high in the cool lush pine forests of the Sierras (3000m AOD) the pueblos are to tranquility as Keith Richards is to rock and roll.

This tranquility is captured best by the unassuming pueblito of Yavesia, which sits in the bottom of a valley with a refreshing river flowing through it’s centre.  Beautifully painted signs placed in random places throughout the valley offer little tidbits of advice like “Eat fruits and vegetables” or “Your health is your right, and also your responsibility” and each evening the village news is read by megaphone, easily heard from anywhere within the green walls surrounding.  The people here take “friendly” to the next level, and were extremely warm and inviting even by Mexican standards.  For example, when I bought a few things from a little shop, the next thing I knew the nice lady was giving me the grand tour of her garden and telling me about her new grandson as if I was her next door neighbour and not some strange white guy on a bicycle passing through.

"Enjoy every moment of life because these moments will never return." Sage advice in Yavesia.

Fishing for lunch

Yavesia was not an exception either.  In Benito Juarez, ordering a river trout for lunch turned into a mini-adventure as the girl at the comedor (very low key eatery) and I walked down to the small fish farm the village had set up so I could fish out my slippery lunch while we chatted about the local village life.  In all the villages I passed through: Benito Jaurez, Cuajomoloyas, Yavesia, Lachatao, Latuvi, Santa Cantarina Cuixtla, San Pablo Coatlan, San Sebastian Coatlan, and La Reforma, the people were wonderful.

Traffic.

Not that the city dwellers would know it.  In the city of Miahuatlan I talked to a fruit vendor and his wife in the marketplace to get directions for the road to Santa Catarina Cuixtla and they told me with alarm in their voices that in this area there were “malas personas” bad people, that I might get robbed, and that I’d be better off sticking to the highway.  But I experienced nothing of the sort.  I felt perfectly happy leaving my bike unlocked and on its own while I wandered about the village.  Likewise, the villagers felt perfectly happy letting me keep a tab at local restaurant that I would pay before leaving town, or letting me sleep one night in their kitchen so I wouldn’t have to pitch my tent.  It is ironic that city dwellers tend to fear the villagers when the reality is that the villages are much safer than the cities.  Or perhaps it is just that people with more money tend to fear people with less?

The villages are the mexican equivalents of pleasantville primarily because villagers all seemed very content with their lives.  I hitched a short ride near one village with a man in his late fifties.  He told me that he had lived in the USA, in LA, for a few years and that he had not enjoyed his time there and was glad to be back in his hometown.  “There…” he said “There it was always work work work work.  I had to work all the time just be able to pay my rent and bills.  It was too much work every day.  Here it is better.  Here I earn very little, but my life is much more tranquilo, much more simple, here… life is good.”

After the tough mountain roads of the Pueblos Mancomunados, Tony and I headed back to Oaxaca for a much needed day of rest.  I like Oaxaca city.  It’s a small and accessible but still lively and with a half-decent nightlife  The food and the people are fantastic, Mezcal has grown on me and I now prefer it to Tequila and the climate is superb (though a bit hot at the moment)  Also around the city there are the mountains, climbing, and waterfalls.  In short, I could live there.  If only  it was on the coast….

Occupy Oaxaca Movement.  That’ll teach ‘em!

Unfortunately, when I got back to Oaxaca it was a bad time to be in the city trying to run a few errands.  Not only was it hot enough to cook your tortillas on the pavement – or humid enough to steam your tamales – but the entire city centre had been invaded by the most deadly force known to man:  Angry Teachers.  One of the strongest unions in the country, the teachers were on strike (again) and had pitched their tents and tarpaulins everywhere such that no matter where you tried to go in the centre you were left shuffling slowly behind a sizzling queue of people slowly weaving their way through the occupation.  Apparently this is an almost annual event and the teachers would be neglecting their duties for another 2 weeks.  Of the Mexican I have spoken, none spare any sympathy for their cause.  Apparently this time, the Oaxacan teachers once again asked for higher wages (which are already high by mexican standards) and the government responded that higher wages could only be granted if teachers had the appropriate credentials or if the agreed to go through a process of evaluation.  Not surprisingly the vast majority of Mexican teacher were appalled at the prospect of being evaluated and so the left their student to their own devices so they could turn the plaza mayor of Oaxaca into refugee camp.  I would have taken pictures, but I was in town trying (and failing) to buy a new SD card for my camera so I was unable to do so.

VAMOS A LA PLAYA!!! Back Roads to Puerto Escondido

After our day of rest, and a couple of decent hangovers, Tony and I headed south for Puerto Escondido via the route suggested to us by Pedro.  It’s an amazing route, but also a very tough one for all the steep ups and downs.  Toño and I got lucky though.  On day two of our backroad adventures we climbed into San Pablo Coatlan just in time to find Pedro Martinez himself eating lunch with a couple of Spanish tourists.  They were on the tour of the exact same route I was riding and Pedro kindly offered to let me toss my bags into the ¨Hulk¨ (their green support vehicle) and ride with them up to San Sebastian.  It was an offer I couldn´t refused and I ended up staying with them and riding with them the rest of the way to Puerto Escondido.  It was such a pleasure to be riding Toño off-road for the first time without all the panniers on him.  In fact, it was my first time mountain biking (without bags) in nine years, and I had forgotten how fun – and how scary – it could be flying down hills, around sharp corners, through rivers, and over little jumps.

Now time for a cheeky plug.  Pedro Martinez is the man.  If you come to Oaxaca and know how to ride a bike, give this man your business and he will give you an amazing experience.  He knows pretty much everyone in the villages and he knows the road like the back of it hand. http://www.bicicletaspedromartinez.com/

After five days on the road, we finally emerged from the hot snake and boa infested jungle (we saw a 1.5m boa on the trail one day) into surfers’ paradise: Puerto Escondido.  After a fantastic breakfast of chilaquiles verdes con pollo y huevos estrelladas y frijoles, Tony got loaded up again with all his bags and I bid our new friends a short fare-thee-well before riding down the coast to find myself a hammock and beer.

1 comment

  1. Andy Morton

    Sounds fantastic, Zach. And you’ve still got so much ahead

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