A Series of Unfortunate Events

For all intents and purposes, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is one big holiday resort. The most Northeast state is a Caribbean playground and is so contrastingly different the Mexico I’d come to know. It’s absolutely beautiful, don’t get me wrong but it quickly became apparent it had lost it’s authentic charm. The spring-breakers, honeymooners and perma-tanners had had their way with it. The need for broken Spanish was not required as most of the locals spoke English and that saddened me a tad. Fellow travelers and backpackers were a plenty. Still somehow it remains to be one of my favourite states of Mexico. The variety was outstanding. There was the lagoon of the 7 colours, limestone sinkhole swimming, world-famous sandy-white beaches, snorkeling with turtles and impressive Maya ruins. 

Bacalar

After a blisteringly hot and long 490km ride from Palenque, I descended upon Bacalar. My first taste of Quintana Roo and boy did it impress. The waist high lagoon of the 7 colors was the paradise I’d stumbled upon but never intended on searching for. The hostel organised an excellent half day out on a catamaran where we waded in the clear water, swam in my first Mexican cenote and had a mud bath. The hostel was rife with mosquitos which feasted on me but it was a small price to pay for this unique beauty. 

Tulum

A couple hours riding north of Bacalar was the town of Tulum. Following a recommendation from a friend from San Cristobal I hit up Mamas Home, run by the gregarious Spaniard Jose. A gent of a man who had lived in Dublin for 10 years and claimed he had much to thank Ireland for who he is today. Tulum marked the start of a very visible tourism transformation. Pale, USD-toting gringos roamed the streets in hordes and I had to check myself to confirm I was still in Mexico multiple times. 

On one particular day in Tulum I rode to the popular Dos Ojos Cenote for a quick dip. Cenotes are ancient sinkholes formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock which exposes the groundwater. Complete with refreshing, crystal clear waters and dead-skin eating fish, they were a very welcome escape from the Mexican heat. This area of Mexico was littered with them, each with it's own charm and appeal and no two were the same. 

On the ride back I decided to take a detour and check out beach. I was unimpressed by what seemed to be a honeymooners paradise of resorts, romantic restaurants and spas which shielded the beach from the public. Adamant to find the beach and grab my 'Made it to the Carribean shot', I kept going and eventually found a bedraggled cyclist who was also on a quest for the beach to camp for the night. I tried to use my google maps GPS location but it didn't show much. I told him I'd ride another couple of miles, ride back and let him know. Eventually I broke free of the commercialized beach and found a nice small stretch of untouched paradise. On a mission, I rode back to let the cyclist know who was nearly upon me and led him there. Martin was a Polishman who had left Patagonia 3 years ago and was approaching the end of his incredible trip in Cancun. He wore the trip on his face and skin, sun-bleached from the years of exposed riding. I've met many cyclists who were in the midsts of such epic trips, but none so near the end and it showed. I've no doubt that he had aquired wisdom and life experience far beyond the 3 years he was on the road. It was humbling and very inspirational to meet such a fellow who pushed the limits and achieved such an extraordinary feat. Oddly enough, he too had spent many years in Ireland, somewhere in the arse of nowhere like Rode in Offaly if I remember correctly. He briefly told me some great stories including how he’d been held up by machete twice in Honduras. We got on well and could have chatted for hours but light was fading and he was on a mission to find a suitable campsite on the beach so I grabbed a snap of us and we parted ways. 

This legend of a Polishman Marcin had cycled from Patagonia and was finishing in Cancun. He'd been on the road for nearly three years. He'd lived in Offaly randomly enough and had some great stories about his travels. I stumbled across him while he was searching for a campsite on the beach in Tulum.

This dog in a hostel in Tulum knows how to chill.

Monkeying around at the refreshing Garden of Eden cenote, one of the many limestone sinkholes around the outskirts of Tulum.

Akumal

A mere 20km North of Tulum is the village/town of Akumal. I heard it was possible to go snorkeling with green and loggerhead turtles which grazed on the sea grass right on the beach. Armed with my new snorkel and goggles I'd just bought I excitedly hurried out to get a glimpse at these magnificent creatures. I parked the bike, strolled down to the beach, expecting there to be a catch. Did I have employ a guide or pay some made up beach fee for such a unique experience? Turns out no. It was rare example of uncommercialzed nature. Yes there were many guided tours but anybody with a snorkel and ability to swim needed not worry about that. I was 40/50m out from shore when I saw my first. About 1-2 metres in length, these gentle, graceful creatures were chomping away on the sea grass like it was going out of fashion. Many had huge remora fish suctioned to the top and bottom of their shells, living in perfect symbiotic harmony. I must have seen about 15 green and loggerheads in the 30/40 minutes I was there. I couldn't believe how accessible they were how many there were. Clearly unaffected and not bothered by the hordes of snorkeling tourists, they grazed happily coming as close as a couple metres to some lucky spectators. It's an absolute must-see if you ever come to these parts and to date one of the most intimate encounters I've ever had with nature. 

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen was not so much a destination for me but more of a stop over before hitting Isla Mujeres. I had no intention of spending more than the one night in this fully-fledged holiday resort town. I did however have the fortune of meeting two Irish lads from Kildare Dave and John. As fate would have it yet again, we'd continue to meet up in various countries through Central America. The hostel ran an all-you-can-drink mojito-making class which quickly escalated into a banterous free-for-all.

Isla Mujeres

Just off the coast of Cancun is the gorgeous white-sanded island of Isla Mujeres. ‘Women Island’ so-named because it is said the Spanish conquistadors used to keep their woman out here, out of harms way. I stayed in what was probably one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in; Poc Na. Free yoga on the beach daily(of which I partook often), free salsa classes(not so much :(), live entertainment, volleyball and of course beach-side hammocks for chilling.

My time on Isla Mujeres however was marred by an unfortunate string of bad luck. I was struck with a severe dose of what I can only imagine was flu which included fevers, chills and an upset stomach all the while trapped in the inescapable 32 degree heat. It knocked me on my ass for 3 full days was a truly miserable experience. I think at one stage I had convinced myself I had malaria, but lacked the nausea to back it up. I was just about on the upswing when on the ride back from a snorkeling trip halfway across the island with a German chica I’d befriended, I caught a rear tire puncture. The culprit: a key. Not a particular sharp key either. It had somehow penetrated all the way through. I had to send the German walking for the last 500m while I carefully rode the bike back to the hostel in a race against time before total deflation as I fishtailed all over the place. My first flat, lovely. I found a small scooter repair shop and asked could I use their space to fix my flat. The young man obliged and watched as I proceeded to struggle to remove the rear axle nut which was locked in place. The nut was to tight and my OEM tools were too shite to loosen it. With the help of his air pressure tool we removed the nut and I was able to remove the wheel. Breaking the tire bead was the next hardest feat but the young mechanic showed me his tricks of the trade. His prognosis of the hole was grim; too big to patch. Balls. I asked him if he knew where I could pick up a new tube on the island and he motioned for me to hop on the back of his motorcycle so we could try find out. This was my first time as a pillion passenger and it was not as comfortable as I thought. I towered above him also which must have looked hilarious. I was still not well and the heat was intense. I was close to delirious as we tore around the island popping into hardware shops and repair shops. Third time lucky, we found a guy who said he could fix the hole easily with some vulcanized rubber and a heated press. Cost me a total of 20 pesos($1.5). He also had new tubes that were the right size. I picked up one just in case. Things were looking up! When we got back to the shop, the struggle resumed to get the tire fitted back around the rim in the thick afternoon heat. Again he demonstrated his skills helping me. I was covered in grease, sweaty and unsteady on my feet but with the help of the mechanic’s son, we fixed my flat!

Another customer, a cheery old-timer with an infectious laugh asked me where I was from and admired my bike. He generously bought me a beer before jokingly scalding me for my upside-down placement of the Mexican flag on the side of my bike! The owner of the mechanic shop came back and the son filled him in. Either he admired that I was willing to get my hands dirty and did half the work or he was a generous man, either way he would not take payment when I asked him how much I owned him for his son’s time and labor. Quite taken aback from this kind gesture, I still insisted and thrust a 200 peso note into his son’s hand and thanked him graciously.

Me and Bibi, a German backpacker scouting the island for some snorkeling. Little did we know a sinister day-ending key awaited us on the road only a couple of kilometres away.

The source of my trouble. The key was all the way in when I pulled over first. Bit of a nightmare but was good to get the experience plus there were definitely worse places to get temporarily stranded!

The drama on Isla Mujeres was topped off by some hoor stealing the OEM tools from the rather hidden pouch on the back of the bike a day later. I notified the hostel and asked about CCTV. We watched it saw a local, clear as day, fiddle around the bike, running his hand over it until he came across this slot and relieved me of my only tools at 6am right outside the hostel, the pilfering son of a bitch. The hostel said they’d check with the security guards but weren’t much help as he had been wearing a cap and they couldn’t get a clear glimpse of his face. Pissed off, I was ready to leave the island, feeling it was the island punishing me for overstaying my welcome.

This little gatekeeper of paradise scurried up and struck a pose for me on Isla Mujeres.

Cancun

I crashed in Cancun for two days to get the sand out of my hair and get organised following an eventful time on the island. On fine evening I decide to treat myself to the cinema where I watched the Avengers: Age of Ultron. Beforehand, as I waited to enter the screen, I was approached by an old Mexican lady who essentially tried to force a companionship on her daughters new English boyfriend who was without gringo friends. She dragged me over to him and expected us to be instant friends, two gringos along way from home. His name was Ryan. We chatted briefly and he proceeded to tell me how he met her on Tinder and followed her over to Cancun for 6 months. How funny. The mother was sad to hear I was only passing through. She's have to keep up her search. 

The primary reason I'd chose to chill in Cancun was to pick up a new toolset knowing it would have the best selection of stores. I found an AutoZone, Walmart and a Home Depot and was able to pull together a new tool kit which stung me for an hefty $90USD. At least this toolkit was of much better quality and it provided a new found confidence knowing I'd be able to tackle many a problem with it.

Jose told me how he'd worked on Quay St. in Galway years back. Small world!

Vallodolid

Finally it was off to Vallodolid to rendezvous with Pat, dip into some cenotes and check out the mighty Chichen Itza. Besides some nice restaurants and the marvelous albeit totally over-hyped Chichen Itza mayan ruin, there wasn't much worth hanging around this town of Vallodolid.

After 7 spectacularly glorious weeks in Mexico, it was time to leave the land I’d come to know so well. I would be back, of that much I am sure but Belize was up next and with it came a new people, a different culture and fresh new adventures! Hasta luego Mexico!

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Fuel Efficiency

Oaxaca was in our sights but we wouldn’t make it in one stretch. We opted to crash in the rather contemporary Tehuacan, just over halfway between Mexico City and Oaxaca. The roads were excellent and the view was majestic. Despite reminding ourselves we needed to fuel up shortly after leaving Oaxaca, it slipped our minds. Perhaps we were distracted by the vistas provided by  the raised road but alas we had roughly 30 miles left in the tank and a calculated 40 miles until the next town. As veteran eejits in this field we snapped into our drill;

  1. Drop to the more fuel-efficient speed of 80-90km/hr.
  2. Slide back in the seat and crouch forward to get as much of our tall frames under the windscreen to maximise aerodynamics.
  3. When approaching any considerable hill declines, shifting to Neutral, killing the engine and free-rolling.
  4. Mutter soft words of encouragement to our now sentient bikes in a hope they’d listen and safely guide us to the next gas station.

We kept it up for about 10 miles until a gas station appeared out of nowhere behind a rocky outcrop. Christ on a bike with Jesus on the handlebars, I remember the relief rolling over us. We lucked out yet again.

With nothing booked we’d be winging it in Tehuacan. We pull into a hotel that looks decent only to be met with a rather peculiar and alarming sight, 20-30 people, blindfolded, holding on to each other by their shoulders being led somewhere. You could imagine our initial reactions and thoughts. This is Mexico after all. If it wasn’t for the laughter and smiles creeping out from under them blindfolds confirm it was a birthday ruse, I would have thought we’d stumbled across another bunch of protesting teachers :/. 
Since were were only really passing through we were only concerned with feeding ourselves and grabbing a quick drink that evening. A friendly local overheard us trying to decipher a menu and came to our aid with recommendations. Perfect.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca was our target destination. We had heard nothing but good things and it did not let us down. Lots of cobblestoned streets, a famous large market and food stalls a plenty. We made a beeline for our hostel, the Casa Angel Youth Hostel. They had nowhere to bring the bikes in but said we could park them right outside the door which would suffice. Oaxaca was warm, very warm and our dorm lacked the ventilation required to disguise two smelly bikers whose gear(especially our boots) was starting to carry a pong. Our poor Argentinean room-mates! I wouldn’t blame them if it we were the reason they were gone the next day!
I have come to notice that when traveling, there are generally two plans of attack for a new place: 

  1. Explore said town, soaking up the culture, people and energy and 
  2. Seek out adventure activities, excursions and unique attractions in the area.

After many delicious Mole(chocolatey sauce native to the region) Chicken dishes and aimless wanders through this pretty colonial town, we decided on Hierve el Agua for a day trip. It was an hours ride from Oaxaca. The road was perfect save for the last 5 miles which were very much dirt road. Nothing our trusty KLR650s couldn’t handle. Hierve el Agua is a very unique mineral formation, duplicated in only one other location in the world. Sulphurous water bubbled up into these overhanging pools where we swam and chilled out for a couple of hours. A weapon of a Mexican lady was selling fresh coconuts. She’d precisely hack the coconut with her machete until she could thrust a straw through and serve it up. After we’d drank them dry, she’d go at it again carving all the coconut meat out for us. Not a bad return on investment for about 2USD!

 Then, in the middle of tranquil paradise I’d heard it; something familiar that instantly removed from this alien world and transported me back home; the unmistakable accent of a Cork man. Oddly, it was music to my ears. I hadn’t heard the brogue since I left Texas and I was keen to have a chinwag with a fellow Irishman who seemed to be few and far inbetween in these parts. Mexico must be one of the few places left where the Irish wanderlust and diaspora have not infiltrated. I’d not met another Irishman(or Irishwoman) in Mexico and this absence left me craving the interaction even more. Rory was finishing up a brief Central American jaunt and was about to be heading home. Turns out he was staying in our hostel so naturally we shared a few cold ones and talked some amount of shite, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

The hostel was a hot spot of interesting folk. We met Jaryd, a Canadian who’d left Calgary 7 months ago and was destined for Patagonia. As fate would have it, we’d randomly meet Jaryd multiple times on the road. There was a bunch of 4 artisitic Aussies who rode from LA to Baja California then down to Puerto Escondido on some KLR650s. Their site www.thehowlingsea.com is full of amazing pictures and stories.

The energy in Oaxaca was mighty so on one particular night we let the hair down and went out for a few only for it to unexpectedly escalate into a bender into the early hours of the morning. We met some American chicks who were over for a semester and knew the lay of the land fairly well. After the first bar closed, we recruited more company and cabbed to an after hours club where we ended up until 6am. It must have been a local spot as we were the only wife-beater and shorts-clad gringos there standing out like sore thumbs. Despite this, the locals couldn’t get enough of us. Lots of friendly, inebriated locals wanted to know what our deal was and where we were from. Shots were generously bought for us and I pretty sure some guy practically offered his sister up to Pat. It was all a bit mad(and blurry) but the craic was had.

Oaxaca was one of the better places I’ve become fond of so I was a little sad to leave. Off we went and yet again our reliance on Google maps failed us but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We were forced through gravel and dirt roads with no signs, forced to use our innate orienteering skills to cross a few kilometres where we could see where we needed to go to get back on track. While it was more of a stream than anything, we crossed our first river. It was only about 20 yards wide and half a foot deep but in my mind we had graduated to intrepid Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman adventure rider status.

San Jose del Pacifico

It was back to the jungle again to the lush San Jose del Pacifico. Recommended to me by multiple friends so as we ascended the narrow mountain roads into the clouds, I knew we were in for a treat. This tiny village is nestled 8400 feet up in the clouds and was a truly magical place. Mist/clouds would roll in daily, temporarily consume the town only for them to roll off during the morning and evening, treating visitors to an amazing vista. They say that on a clear day you can see the Pacific Ocean 42km away! Sadly our view was not that epic but it more than sufficed. Our bromantic log cabin was incredible. Unfortunately it was very steep walk away from the road so carrying our luggage was a pain in the hole but totally worth it. It had a fireplace and a front porch that overlooked the valley. I couldn’t help but think that it would have been better suited to a honeymooning/vacationing couple. It was far too nice for us. After all, we were on an adventure, not a holiday right??! Still, we lapped it up, we knew we wouldn’t always have it this good. There was a significant temperature drop up here which we happily embraced. While the heat is marvelous, it’s nice to get some cold sleeping weather from time to time. 

For activities, we had heard about an authentic Mexican sauna called Temazcal which uses multiple stages of hot rocks and a melange of herbs which is said to offer many benefits for the body and mind. It was run by Navarro, the kind of man who just exuded good energy. He looked almost shaman-like. He was a very spiritual man and he too had found his happiness up here on the mountain. He was a herb and plant master, having trained from his Mayan grandmother who part raised him. We were led to his property where we’d be doing our sweating, about a mile outside of the village. Joining us was a lovely English couple Gaz and Emma and their two kids Gruffydd and Ramona who had been living in Mexico for the last few months. We all got to know each other over the Temazcal. Turns out Gaz was none other than Geraint Anderson, the UK best seller who penned ‘City Boy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile’; the laid-bare account of life in London's Financial heartland, revealing everything from corruption to it's murky underbelly. Having come from that industry myself I found his life story fascinating. Afterwards we wandered around his jungle garden and zen'd out for a while. I let the adorable Gruffydd and Ramona hop on the bike and grabbed some snaps with everyone.

What I didn’t expect to find in this magic mountain town was some amazing food. Hands-down one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Endearingly called Gringo Burger, it really didn't look like much from the outside. It was run by an American chef who had worked in NY for 10 years. He moved out here and continues to tantalize taste buds in this far off land. There was also this Italian place that served delicious, mountain-sized bowls of pasta which heavily defeated me(a rarity in itself). Doggy bag? You betcha! 

Just as we're on the way out of town, who do we meet rolling up the street only Jaryd. Our Canadian amigo must have hightailed it on his bicycle as we'd only left him in Oaxaca two days behind us! Some man.

Puerto EsconDido

The ride to the Pacific beach town of Puerto Escondido was another fun hair-raiser. I was conscious of my now near-bald rear tire so every tight bend I leaned in on was potentially the last in my paranoid brain. I would be convinced the bike was handling differently only to pull over and find the tire would be completely fine. The mind sure can play tricks. Eventually we arrive in La Punta or The Point, suitably named because of the nearby point break, a place strategically picked by us in anticipation of much surfing. Our digs here is a beach cabin/hut not more than 100m from the water’s edge. It comprises of one bed and a mattress on the floor which we make due with. Our time in Puerto is spent mostly eradicating the pasty whiteness of our sun-deprived skin and in the warm Pacific Ocean where we surfed twice a day without fail(to varying degrees of success). The vibes were chill and the beers a plenty. The place was heavenly and our first taste of beach on the trip. The last bit of ocean I’d seen was off NJ two months ago so it was pretty exciting to be reunited with ole blue.
I celebrated my 28th birthday here sipping on fresh coconuts and being treated to a beach-side massage Pat had generously bought for me. To top it all off, I was lucky to catch the unexpected release of 200 baby turtles only 50 yards away. It was a thing of beauty and incredibly humbling to watch. A perfect ending to a glorious day. 28 was going to be a good one :).

I spotted them as we were eating dinner one night; two weary bikers, rolling in on their 2003 Africa Twins looking for a spot to stay. Doth my eyes deceive me? Had we finally met some fellow adventure overlanders in the midst of a great journey? I see them peel to a stop nearby and almost skip over to greet them. Who are they? Where have they rode from? Where are they going? I was gripped with excitement and had to know. Enter Jeri and Dagowin, two twenty-something Dutch lads who had rode from Santiago, Chile and were en route to Alaska. Having saved and planned for 3 years, Jeri as a social worker and Dagowin as a plumber, they were finally living out their dream trip. Fuckin A, my heroes. I pointed them to where we were staying and for the next few days, we drank and were merry. We swapped routes, tips and stories. I didn’t want to part ways, I wanted to absorb all the wisdom they had picked up on their trip. I would after all be riding back the way they came. They were incredibly knowledgeable about their bikes having diagnosed and fixed many a problem since they started out. Interestingly, they said we were the youngest riders they’d come across overlanding by a fair bit since they left Chile! 
We all left the same day and excitedly rode together for an hour before we had to part ways. It was such a rush to share the roads with these friends we’d made, brief as it was. For that hour, I pictured us as knights riding into a great battle, united by two wheels, on a quest for something greater. 

Our final Pacific beach side venture before we started riding north east into the Chiapas region was La Ventanilla. Yet another recommendation from a friend. After parking our bikes and taking all of our gear off, we were led off down the beach and onto a small boat where our guide began to take us into a lagoon. Not quite knowing what to expect, the place was pleasantly surprising. I can only describe it as a mini-Galapagos Island sort of ecosystem. The relatively small red and white mangrove lagoon was home to many crocodiles, big iguanas and many birds. Our guide spoke in Spanish and much to our surprise we were able to understand a lot of what he said. He pointed out a huge 75 year old croc not 5 metres away from us and fed the docile iguanas a leafy snack which caused a stir on the mangrove island on which they lived, slithering and sliding all over each other trying to get their fill.

Sandy-arsed and freshly freckled, thus concluded our Mexican Pacific jaunt. The next time we’d see her would be in Guatamala some weeks later. For now though, our quixotic mission continued back inland to the beautiful regions of Chiapas and Quintana Roo, further cementing my love affair with this splendid country.

 

 

Welcome to the Jungle

 San Luis Potosi and Federal District: Media Luna, Xilitla and Mexico City

Laguna de la Media Luna

I'd read about famed swimming hole Laguna de la Media Luna whilst doing some research the day before we left Real de Catorce. It's working pretty well so far but it's such a luxury just sitting down and asking ourselves 'Where do we feel like going tomorrow?'. It's the joys of having the motorcycles. Freedom to spin pretty much anywhere we please, whenever we want. While the majority of backpackers on the gringo trails are drooling away on the effects of Valium for their long range buses from one country to the next, we're pulling over to admire views and checking out interesting roads. I love that to some extent, comfort is under my control. My height and constant need to fidget would have me squirming in a bus seat so I'm not envious of that aspect of their travel. I can shift in my seat, bolt upright, backwards, forwards to my hearts content without annoying anyone in my proximity. Stop to stretch or grab a cold coke on a hot day? No problem. I am envious of the idle time they are forced to reckon with however. While I love to read, I find, like many,  I need to make an effort to pick up a book or, be forced into a reading situation sans internet and distractions. It's a sad reality I'm trying hard to change.

 So yeah, Media Luna. So-named because of the crescent shape, the lake is a volcanic crater of sulphurous water which stays a balmy 28C/82F all year. Due to these conditions, two very-well preserved Mammoth remains were discovered and raised from the depths here some time ago. Mad.

So we rock up, hot and sweaty and find out we can camp/hammock it. We're not able to bring the bikes in but we're assured they'd be safe right outside where the Police hang about(they were).We met Angel at the gate, a dude with great English who gave us the lowdown. The place was bustling, it was Easter/Semana Santa and everybody and their dog was out. We located a few well-distanced trees and set up shop. It didn't take long to attract the attention of our neighbors, a really friendly and hospitable family who took us under their wing and fed us for a day or two. They were loving the fact their kids were able to practice their English on us while we were able to pick up some Spanish.

During the first day we spend hours jumping, diving and flipping off the pier. Not expecting to be out for so long, I foolishly hadn't applied on any sunscreen and deservedly transformed into a lobsterman by evening time. Hammock + sunburn was no bueno. 

Having got our PADI Open Water Certification two years ago, myself, Pat were keen to get back into it. When we heard they offered relatively cheap diving in Media Luna we were eager to take the plunge and get on it. Our guide showed up 45 minutes late(Mexican time!), sorted our gear and off we went. There's wasn't much of a refresher. 10 minutes later we were diving through an underwater cave. You always hear that most diving deaths occur in caves where sediment is kicked up and they become disoriented etc and can't find their way out. So after cacking myself initially, I soon realized it was fine and was able to enjoy the amazing beauty the place offered. While it didn't offer the most diverse range of marine life(all we spotted was a turtle and some small fish), the petrified underwater forest and bottomless sinkholes made up for it. On the way back our opportunist guide fished coins and trinkets off the lagoon floor. 

The time came to leave. As we said our farewell to Angel, our hombre and new Facebook friend generously gave us some cool trinkets including some old Mexican Peso notes, coins and key ring. I hadn't much to offer so let him pick some stickers out of the masses I'd accumulated along the way.

Xilitla and the Surrealist Garden of Edward James

Next up was Xilitla, a town that would probably be unheard of if it wasn't for eccentric millionaire Edward James. Bored by the stiff, bourgeois rationality of his time, he joined the surrealist movement escaping to a world of fantasy and irrationality. He became a major financial supporter of Salvador Dali. Whilst on a trip to the small jungle-consumed Mexican village of Xilitla in the 50's, a vision came to him. It was here he start a project that would span 10 years and $5m. It would eventually become the most significant monument to surrealist art in the world.

The ride to Xilitla saw the landscapes change from mountain desert to lush mountain jungle in almost the blink of an eye. Tracing curved mountain roads whilst trying not to gaze too long at the epic views was difficult. The town itself had a near European feel to it. There was a bustling market and the well manicured town square had clearly seen it's share of international travelers. We opted for a hotel with all the mod cons, our treat for hammocking the last 3/4 nights. Nothing like slumming it to make you appreciate the little luxuries in life!

The following day we set off to find the infamous garden. Having not learnt our lesson already, we haphazardly navigated our way using Google Maps which led us down a road which rapidly turned into a steep drop of steps. Balls...again. It took us about 10 mins to awkwardly manoeuvre the bikes in the tiny space we had to turn around and go back the way we came. Had we been fully loaded with our gear, I doubt we'd have been able to. Phew.

By the time we got there, we were already sweating. I'd forgotten how unforgivingly humid jungle could be. Jeans were a bad idea. The garden itself was unique. It resembled an Escher-like world of geometric shapes, spirals and structures often symmetrical. It was totally out of place and spectacular at the same time. A place that had to be seen to be believed. Some relief from the humidity was found in the form of a refreshing waterfall stream, in my jocks no less. Nothing would get in the way of me and that sweet reprieve. 

Like every tourist attraction in Mexico, expat crusties lined some stalls at the exit selling their trinkets. Here they were Argentineans and Frenchies who had been searching for something and seemingly found it in Mexico. I certainly don't think I'd be having any epiphonies in this humidity but hey each to his own! Pat indulged them by purchasing some bits and pieces and we were on our way.

Angel had recommended we check out Sotanos de las Golindrinos/Cave of Swallows which was outside Xilitla. After riding a super steep, mountain road we found it and appeared to be the only people silly enough to come on such a foggy day. Sure enough our views of this huge 300 metre opening in the mountain were limited but we got to see and hear some of the exotic green parrots which inhabited it. For no cost, a guy slung a rope harness around us to allow us to peer over the edge to get a close look. Not dodgy at all. For 3000 pesos(200USD) each he would rappel us all the way to the bottom....no thanks buddy.  

We decided we'd try shoot for Mexico City after the Cave of Swallows but the going was very slow. It took us 3 hours to ride 80kms. It was 80kms of super windy mountain roads where we constantly got stuck behind trucks and had to watch ourselves. Many trucks would be in our lane going around hairpin bends. Tired from being on full alert, Jacala was where we called it a night. We weren't stopped for 15minutes when we were approached by an Argentinean lad called Daniel who told us how he'd rode a motorcycle from Mexico to Argentina not once but twice! Once in the 80's and then more recently. He said he took up a Mexican wife and made Mexico his home. He proudly told us of his eco-friendly house he'd built with his own bare hands and of all the fresh vegetables he was growing. An interesting man who had clearly found his happiness. He proceeded to ask us about our routes. I whipped out our road maps and he was more than happy to trace some recommended routes and highlight some spots. Invaluable information for which we thanked him greatly!


Mexico City DF

I wasn't sure what to expect in Mexico's capital city. I was expecting the driving to be chaotic and bad but it was much worse than that. On the outskirts of the city there were no lanes, no lane indicating and just general mad people with terrible road skills. We eventually found our hostel and were able to park the bikes outside which was terribly handy. I was relieved to get off the road.

I'll be honest, I thought Mexico City would be a crowded, dirty hive of activity. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to find it was as cosmopolitan and contemporary as any major city in the US. Yes, it had been fully infiltrated by every US chain store you could think of from Krispee Kreme to Carls JR to Burger King and there were more Starbucks than your typical Manhattan block radius but it was a very pleasant, clean city. It was worlds different to the rural Mexico we had come to know.

We met some absolutely fascinating people in our hostel. Take Olly for example, a nice young Aussie chap who was running 6000km from Mexico City to Panama over the next 6 months. That's 5 marathons a week...incredible stuff. All to raise awareness for Depression in Young People. He even had a little custom-built cart that he'd tow with him while he was running with all his gear! Then there was Paulo, an energetic middle-aged man who left Australia on his ancient, banged up BMW GS 80000km ago! Jokingly calling his trip 'Adventure before Dementia', he had traversed, Australia, NZ, South America, Central America and was heading to Africa after he hit the States. Another remarkable feat and a true dual-sport overlander through and through. There was also an Israeli and Argentinean couple called Tal and Sol who made me promise to find the hostel he ran in Buenos Aires when I made it down.

One of the days we went on a hunt looking for oil and oil filters. Paulo led the way as we ran around the city like headless chickens, ducking and weaving out of traffic, him getting us lost or taking us in the occasional wrong direction. He was a fan of asking for directions over trusting technology but it was far from foolproof! We had wanted to change our oil and oil filters in the garage but couldn't find a shop wasn't asking for a ridiculous sum so we opted to change ourselves outside the hostel. This would be the first bit of maintenance we would perform on the bike and I was oddly excited. Having read and re-read the KLR650 manual on oil changes I had everything ready and it was time to get the hands dirty. I cautiously followed the steps, slow and methodically as possible lest I made a mistake. It was dirty. I got splashes of oil on me and even with the gloves and lengths I'd gone to to try not leak a drop on the ground, there was a sizeable puddle after I'd finished, eternalizing my efforts on this Mexican street. We'd gone for fully synthetic oil which ran better in hotter temperatures so it made sense. It meant however we could not switch to non-synthetic oil easily in future and would have to stick using synthetic. Paulo assured us we'd find it everywhere we went. I hope you're right Paulo!

When I bought the bike, my plan was always to be as hands-on as possible. I wanted to be able to fully self-sufficient as much as I could and was very willing to learn. I am not mechanically experienced and the extent of my DIY is building flatpack IKEA furniture(which I enjoy) :p. While this was very minor maintenance, I was pretty chuffed in my accomplishment. My reward: a cold Indio(Mexican beer).

Mexico City has plenty to offer. While sightseeing wasn't our priority, we got to check out the world-famous Anthropology Museum. It was impressive and massive. We spent a half-day reading on the very rich history and culture of Mexico's tribes and civilisations. Even if museums weren't you're thing, simply walking around the main street to the square 'El Zocalo' showcased the vibrant energy of the city. While I was ambling around randomly, I'd stumbled into El Zocalo at the most opportune time. There was an impressive flag-removal ceremony where 200 armed soldiers marched out of the National Palace, to the beat of the leading army band, proudly marching in perfect step as they lined up and carefully lowered the biggest flag of Mexico I'm sure exists. 

Mexico City was significant for me for a lot more personal reasons. It was here I'd finally grown tired of Mexican food, and was jumping at opportunities to surprise my taste buds with anything that wasn't in a taco or a quesadilla. On one such day, I'd even ashamedly succumbed to the rampant might of the golden arches. I wanted a greasy hamburger and it duly provided. Perhaps it was the change in diet or the fact we inevitably had it coming to us, it was in Mexico City that Montezuma sought his revenge on these two gringos. It was a bad bout that bizarrely hit us at the exact same time. I guess we were lucky to have gone 2-3 weeks unpunished in this country so it had caught up to us. A rite of passage we thought.


Once Upon a Time in Mexico. (April 2nd - April 11th)

Border crossings are generally a cause of concern for any traveler and rightly so. Language barriers, cultural differences and the inevitable unexpected. They can make for a pretty stressful experience. I'd researched Mexican border crossings well so had a fair idea of what to expect.

Leaving the US was very easy. We paid a toll to cross a bridge whereupon half way across we were technically on Mexican soil. We then trepidatiously proceeded through a customs checkpoint where some officials had a root through our luggage for any contraband. I’d read unsurprisingly that smiling and being able to exchange simple pleasantries in Spanish goes along way with getting on the Mexican people, official or not so with that in mind the pearly-whites were out 'Hola’s’ were thrown around. We breezed through but finding the Immigration office proved to be trickier than we thought. After a few wrong turns we eventually found it. The process was relatively simple. We showed our passports, filled out a form to get our Tourist Visas then did the similar to obtain the Temporary Vehicle Import Permits. It was definitely an easier process than what I was expecting.

They say the most dangerous areas of Mexico are all within 100 miles of the border so with that in mind, we pointed the bikes towards Monterrey and gunned it. Our first glimpse of the troubles of Mexico was were apparent all the way to Monterrey. Pickup trucks of balaclaved, heavily-armored and M16-toting Federales were regular sightings on the road. While a bit unnerving at first, we soon accepted it as the norm in these high-risk areas and that a shootout was luckily not imminent.

We casually picked out a well reviewed campsite on Google Maps outside Monterrey in Hidalgo the preceding night. La Posada at El Potrero Chico. Not expecting much, we were pleasantly surprised. After riding around lost for a few minutes in the town of Hidalgo, we had a helpful chap on a scrambler escort us right up to the campsite. The place turned out to be a fantastic world famous rock-climbing site, one of the top 10 sport climbs in the world apparently. Sadly, we were told two rock-climbers perished on the rock face only in January, both with a few days of each other. What made it worse was that there had never been a death prior to that.

It was Easter so the place was packed with foreign climbers and vacationing Mexicans alike. There was a pool, hammocks suspended over water and an inexpensive, tasty restaurant. Details of our trip soon spread around the camp and we soon became known as 'them guys riding motorcycles to Argentina’. It was a great conversation-starter and we met a bunch of cool folks who had a ton of recommendations for us to hit up on our way South.

The one day we had wanted to hike the mountain, it rained, so instead we went to check out a hot springs which was recommended to us about an hour away into the desert. When we got there, we were in awe at this random, well-built, underground hot spring that resembled a big Russian bathhouse. The smell of sulphur was strong and the water was a roasting 38C/100F. We lapped it up though and spent several hours there, relaxing and stretching out any kinks we'd accumulated over the last few days of hammock sleeping.

Due to the relaxed, play it by ear nature of our trip, we ambitiously scribbled down any recommendations people gave us on our route South. This is how we learnt about Real de Catorce, a beautiful old town 9000ft up in the Sierra Catorce mountains of the San Luis Potosi state. Translated, 'Royal Fourteen' it was named after 14 Spanish soldiers were ambushed by an indigenous Mexican tribe during colonial days. 'The Mexican' starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts filmed here. A once thriving silver mining settlement(abandoned in 1900 when price of silver plummeted) which is now a pilgrimage site of Huichol Indian shamanists who walk for weeks to get here to perform their sacred rituals. The areas has a reputed spiritual energy and is known for it’s abundance of peyote cactus which the Huichol use in their rituals to guide their consciousness and spirit.

The ride to Real de Catorce was not without excitement. We witnessed the landscape change dramatically from arid outback to cactus desert. What Google maps failed to tell us however was that there were two roads to the town. One was 27km of windy, cobblestoned road which finally led you through Ogarrio Tunnel, a 2.5km old mining tunnel. The was the easy way. The other was 8km of incredibly steep, narrow and rocky road with 70-100 foot drops and no guardrail. I made the mistake of stopping the bikes on one of the steepest parts of the road when Pat got held up and I couldn’t get around him. Trying to get the fully-loaded bike going uphill again whilst avoiding it slipping backwards down the mountain was very hard. The altitude made staying in first gear without conking out and rolling out near impossible. After several failed attempts to get enough traction and forward momentum I had dropped my bike twice. It took Pat standing behind me and stopping me rolling backwards for me to finally get enough juice and traction to get moving again and I did not stop until I got to the top. It was by far the most hair-raising and nervy half an hour I’ve had on the bike. Had we known what we were getting into, I doubt we would even have attempted it. We survived it though and beat the crap out of our bikes. In retrospect it made for some good hardcore off-road experience and really tested our mettle and limits.

Real de Catorce is known for its caballeros(cowboys) so taking a horse ride up to the sacred Huichol Indian ritual site an hour and a half up a mountain seemed like a fitting activity for a half day. Randomly enough it would be my first time up on a horse. I’d been up on an ostrich and a camel but how was this my first time holding the reigns of the equine variety??! Another ‘first’ on this trip I thought.

Once we agreed on a price for the three hour trek (only 400MXN Peso or 26USD), our guide Bernardino disappeared to fetch our horseys. He returned with two grand beasts, brown Sino and a white stallion called Guerara. Since we both had eyes for the caballo blanco, me and Pat decided to flip a coin for him. Yours truly won and after a very basic, quick horseriding tutorial, we were off, practically airborn between trots and holding on for dear life.

Having only just gotten used to taming the 33 horses of my 2 wheeled beast, controlling a cheeky animal who insisted on playing chicken/chase with the other horse Sino was a different kettle of fish altogether. Despite the beating my arse took, it was brilliant. We even got to do the ritual and enter the sacred area with the watchful eye of our guy Bernardino.

Having had our fill of the mountainous altitude and hippy vibes, we set off deeper south into the San Luis Potosi state towards the famed mineral water swimming-hole, Laguna de la Media Luna in Rio Verde.

On the next update: Scuba diving at Media Luna, Surrealist Garden exploring at Xilitla and the cosmopolitan life in Mexico City DF(April 12th - April 19th).