Ah the open road! After a 6 day pause in San Miguel de Allende, I had a long stretch of route ahead of me with no major stops planned for a couple of weeks. Exciting! First day back on the road introduced my first experiences of mapping challenges, which leads me to offer short explanation of what backcountry/offroad mapping has looked like for me so far in Mainland Mexico (skip down to the photos for the rest of the actual blog post)
How to Create Bikepacking Routes through Mexico: Fumbling through the Back Roads
Part 1: Which Maps to Use
OFFLINE OPTIONS: There are a few options for offline maps which can be viewed on computer and/or GPS device in the comforts of your tent. Click on the titles for hyperlinks.
— Open Street Maps: For free, I downloaded all of Mexico on Open Street Maps for starters. But OSM is extremely limited in its coverage of smaller roads and dirt routes. OSM would have you thinking that much of Mexico is open and undeveloped land with no way to travel through it. Not so.
— City Navigator North America: $79USD or creative searching will turn up this routable GIS coded map that extends to the Southern tip of Mexico. Better detail of streets and attractions in urban areas, but offers no further help in rural areas. The search continues.
— Mexican Government Map Pdf’s by State: Much thanks to the sleuthing and linking of John Fontanilles of Wandering by Bicycle, I downloaded copies of these maps produced by the Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes of Mexico. They’re free and you can trust every road they feature will be there. VERY important. However these are not GIS encoded maps, thus they work like paper maps. Not hugely detailed and can be confusing to use when there are more roads than what they depict. You come to a fork in the road that is not on the map, what do you do?? Also, these are PDFs as stated. I personally hate taking my computer out of it’s secret hiding place while on a ride, and my Garmin can’t read PDFs, rendering this a valuable map for nighttime planning but useless for mid-ride navigation. Again, more needed.
— E32 Mapa: In depth online research led me to purchase the E32 mapa, available as a single-use coded download for $100USD. Big money, but as advertised, the E32 is the holy grail for detailed offline map options in Mexico: zoomable topographic information, almost infinite webs of dirt/gravel roads throughout the country, 3D viewable, even non-motorized hiking/biking routes. Unfortunately for GPS geeks, this map is not coded to be routable using computer mapping software (I’m using Garmin Basecamp). The only way to create a GPX track with the map is to drop flags point by point to draw your own line. I personally don’t have the patience for that. But, using the E32 for the last couple of months has revealed that it’s an extremely valuable tool to have in the navigation toolbox. Being able to count topo lines for big climbs has proven immensely helpful for estimating travel time through mountainous areas. The big problem with the E32 is that the information seems to be outdated. Roads depicted as rough dirt are now either a paved highway or so completely overgrown as to be appear non existent. Plus the level of accuracy leaves something to be desired. I’ve found myself in the middle of the mountains exactly where the map says there’s a road, and it’s as much as 1/2 mile away if it’s there at all. For my kind of travel this can be pretty frustrating. All in all I don’t regret dropping the big bucks on this map though as it has gotten me through some challenging locations where I’d have needed to return the way I came without it. I just wish it would be updated with more current information.
ONLINE OPTIONS: There are a few great options for online routing. I’ve been using them more and more, but they have one major drawback. They’re online. You need a strong internet connection to use them easily, and that can be hard to come by in small towns outside of “1st world” travel areas. That said, I love being able to switch between regular maps, satellite views, and topographic views with a button click. I love being able to drag the track line towards places I want to visit along a route.
— Google Maps Engine: This is NOT just Google maps. Do a search for the previous phrase and you’ll find it. You have to sign in using your google account. Advantages: it automatically saves your route every time you alter it so you can come back to it whenever you want. Also very easy to download the file once complete to use as an offline track. It downloads as a .KML file so you need to convert it to GPX via a free online site (like www.gpsies.com). If you select walking as your form of travel rather than driving (the bike option doesn’t work South of the US border), it’ll route you through some pretty interesting and often quite rough backcountry routes. I’ve found it to be about 98% dependable in terms of trusting the route will actually be there and get you where you are going, even if a super rough hiking trail. That 2% failure rate looks like the route dead ending at some dude’s ranch gate, or having to hop over barbed wire fences/locked 6 foot tall gates occasionally. But as you’ll see in the following blog posts, it’s worked out to offer some interesting adventures either way. Disadvantages: Sometimes Google doesn’t register roads and trails that are indeed there, so you can’t use all the routing options available.
— Perfil de Ruta: A site based out of Spain, essentially uses google maps information but with the added advantage of showing you an elevation profile of the route you chose. Drawback is that the elevation profile is often at a low level of detail so you do more climbing than you think you will. Good to know. Also, you can’t save your route here, so I usually upload my Maps Engine track from Google onto this page to check the elevation but save it back inside of Google.
— Google Earth: I’ve actually not used this much, but a friend has had a lot of luck with it. Advantage: So long as it’s visible from an aerial view, you’ll see ALL the roads where you want to go. Great resource for double checking a route you create on another map to make sure it looks clear. Disadvantage: You see a road and it looks good from a satellite, but you have no idea how passable it is OR if it’s on private land. That can be a big problem.
— Other Online Options: Other cyclists have shared with me other options for online mapping programs. I’ve yet to find one that has worthwhile advantages over what I’m currently using. One can endlessly explore maps and mapping programs, but there comes a point when you just have to get off the damn device and ride your damn bike!
2. What I do:
— Route Ideas: I spend endless hours most nights in my tent staring at maps and cross referencing locations with my travel guide and places locals have told me I must see. From all this, I come up with a line of dots I hope to connect into a GPX route.
— Making the Track/Route: Currently I make all my tracks on Google Maps Engine. It’s been the most trustworthy routing program so far, and I stick with what works. However this requires having internet. So I plan a couple of weeks ahead generally, coming up with a track I’m excited about and noting where the next town is along the route that’s likely to have internet in case I want to alter the track at some point along the way. I enter the points I want to visit and set Google to find a walking route between them. Then I drag the lines between points based on finding likely food/water sources and/or geographic features that seem worth visiting/avoiding.
— Making a .GPX Track: Once the line looks done, I download it to my computer from Maps Engine as a .KML file. If I’m curious I’ll upload that file to Perfil de Rutas to see what the elevation changes might look like to mentally prepare myself. I then go to www.gpsies.com and convert it to a GPX file that I download to my Garmin device.
— On the Road: For me, the GPX track I create is a loose guide rather than a fixed line I follow. If the route is rougher than I’m willing to handle that day, I will at times use the range of offline maps I have to find more major roads through the area. Also locals may have travel warnings or suggestions that lead me to alter my plans, of course.
I know this all probably looks pretty complicated and maybe a little OC. If anyone out there has found a better/easier way to travel through the backcountry of Mexico and beyond by mountain bike with safety, I’d love to hear it!
That’s it for now… back to the blog post…
Where I Rode:
Day 1: San Miguel de Allende —> Tinaja de la Estancia —> Piedra Blanca —> Bartolome Aguacaliente —> Jerecuaro —> Puroagua
Day 2: Puroagua –> Sierra Puroagua —> Maravatio —> Tuxpan
Day 3: Tuxpan —> El Puerto de Jungapeo —> Los Zapotes —> Zicata Chico de Morelos —> LOST for a while… —> Santiago Compandaro —> Colonia de Aputzio —> San Juan Xoconusco —> Ixtapan del Oro
Day 4: Ixtapan del Oro —> Colorines —> El Cerillo —> Avandaro —> Valle de Bravo —> Los Saucos
Day 5: Los Sauces —> Meson Viejo —> El Penuelo —> Raices —> Just above tree line on Nevado de Toluca
Riding up the steep cobblestone streets out of San Miguel de Allende, steep enough that folks walking beside me were able to comfortably keep pace…
Speaking of mapping. This was what one of my maps, the E32, depicted as a dirt road. There was no sign of there EVER being a road here. Just a maze of water drainages through rough lava rock down a hillside for a few kilometers. As I dragged the bike through it with arms and legs bleeding from thorns and barbs, I encountered a man on a mule herding his sheep. I think he was pretty confused about why I was there, but kindly clarified the direction in which I could bushwhack my way to the nearest road. Again, people are by and large so very kind.
Detour off the direct route up into the Puroagua mountains. An extremely steep road (like 18-22% grade) climbed 2000’ out of a valley to reveal beautiful mountainside farmlands and small settlements.
Once in the mountains, the road got rough. Whether a conglomerate of loose baby head rocks or deep ruts from recent rains, it was slow going. But fun!
Agave? Maguey? I don’t know how to tell, but this sucker was about 12 feet tall.
Hard to describe the ecstatic sensation of transitioning from seemingly endless hours of bouncing down rough roads and onto a small paved two track for a bit. I always find myself taking huge deep sigh of relief. Then it’s gone in a few hundred meters. Of course.
I guess there are tacos around here somewhere. The question is whether the sign is warning travelers to take precautions with respect to said tacos.
Tuxpan. An industrial town in the hills just South of Ciudad Hidalgo. I found myself here right around sunset with enormous black rain clouds emerging from all directions. It took a bit of pride swallowing to realize taking the $12USD hotel room would not actually be a failure to my velo-hobo lifestyle, and would improve my quality of life that evening tenfold. Little did I know this would be my first night experiencing the onset of the rainy season in Central/Southern Mexico…
I found myself following alongside an aquaduct through a mountain range the following day. Pretty neat to think about the planning required to design such a structure so the water would continually flow over such great distances without any blockages. Especially through these tiny towns and dense mountains.
Source of the water, Bosque Lake. Oddly reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest.
Another mapping mayhem began right around here. I was weaving between the Google route I’d created and exploring the dirt roads depicted on my E32 topographic map. About 5-6 times in rapid succession, I found myself staring at a dead end with the little arrow conveying my location on the GPS map showing there should be a road in front of me. I ended up riding about 20 kilometers out of the way in total, retracing my route back to the nearest intersection with my Google track. Luckily the country was incredibly beautiful the whole time!
After another LONG day of riding, I was able to enjoy a long fast descent into the mountain town of Ixtapan del Oro. I rode directly to the first restaurant I could find and stuffed myself with chicken stew. Numb numb nummers, like totally the max. By stroke of luck the woman working suggested I might want to visit the HOT SPRINGS on the far side of town. Um… yeah. I think that I can do that!
I’m quickly learning that “hot springs” can mean many things in Mexico. In Ixtapan, it means slightly warm pool of muddy water with a ton of neighborhood kids staring at you through a wire fence. Nope.
Okay, this road was amazing. Crossing about 20km of dense rippling mountain range, it somehow stayed with 100 feet of elevation the whole way. Truly amazing.
Aquaduct tracking continues…
Stopping on the roadside for a sip of water, I saw this big old dead centipede thingy. Pretty cool, eh?
Then a mile down, I saw his big brother. At first I wasn’t sure if it was actually alive as it was completely still as I rode right next to it. I stopped, concerned that it would likely get run over by a passing car. But how do you get a sunning 6 foot snake to move along? I tried tossing some leafy brush at it, but it didn’t budge. Finally grabbed a small branch and gently poked at it until it acquiesced and slithered away.
Another example of Google’s impressive mapping. I didn’t ‘choose’ this route, it’s just what google decided was a route. Pretty neat actually, as I avoided a whole urban area on a road that’s not been driven in a long time!
Unfortunately a few miles down the route, I found myself in a super ritzy golf course retirement area near the town of Valle de Bravo. My route led me right up to a guarded gate by a lake side. The guard would not me me ride through. He did at least suggest I wade through the lakeside parallel to the road for a while until I could climb back up onto it. Kind of silly, but what can you do. Gotta respect his authorit-ay.
Still meandering toward Valle de Bravo, I knew I wasn’t in the quiet wilderness anymore. Fancy boat storage abound.
… And then there were the endless rows of huge houses with 3-4 car garages. Turns out Valley de Bravo is the weekend vacation spot for Mexico City’s rich and famous.
I knew there was a lake just to my left along the road, but the only view I got of it was the occasional sighting through locked gates of enormous houses. Get me OUT of here.
I did make it into the old part of town which was cute, but still had a dirty taste in my mouth from the experience getting there. I had a quick bite by the lake side and began the ascent toward the first major volcano: the Nevado de Toluca.
Valle de Bravo: 6,000 feet. Getting over the rim of the Nevado de Toluca crater: 14,000’. Time to get climbing. Saw my first snow in Mexico!!!
Another late afternoon flash rain overcame me. Luckily this uninhabited roadside eatery was available as a temporary shelter!
With no signs of the rain stopping, I pulled into this restaurant and asked if the owners might have a covered area behind the building for me to camp. Kindly, they agreed. Over dinner, I had a great conversation with one of the owners about life perspectives, about narcissism in the face of traveling, and about the meaning of family. Deeply appreciative of the ability to speak Spanish better with every passing week, and of Gloria’s compassionate honesty during our talk. It effected me more than I can convey.
Lots of signage for a nearby monarch butterfly reserve. Unfortunately I was about 2 months late. All closed up.
Getting up there! Finally above 10,000’, the climb would get steeper and rougher from here…
Finally, past all the grey clouds and rain, I got a view of the Nevado de Toluca in the distance. At a bit under 11,000’, that thing still looked pretty huge.
Roads smoothed out after a while into a cool section of Northwest-like rainforest, still just past 11,000’.
I think this little town, Raices, might be a contender for highest elevation town in North America? Nearly 12,000’. Anyone know of a higher one?
Almost above the tree line! The elevation was finally getting to me. Now somewhere over 12,000’, I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. My legs were also giving out and starting to form a revolt against more climbing.
7:30pm. Long day of climbing. Got lost a few more times on ranch roads earlier, good time and fantastic serene location for a campsite. At a little over 13,000’, I’d only about 1000’ to get over the lowest point of the crater off to the left the following day.
Good choice to stop as it turned out. The hills in the distance were enveloped by huge black clouds and booming thunder only a few seconds after lightening flashes. I hunkered into the tent as the rain started. Funny how it’s quickly becoming a pattern to be caught in evening rains, 3 days in a row so far… But here, that rain quickly transitioned into large grains of hail. And continued. All night into the morning. Deafening thunder from various directions. Expert pyrotechnical lightening displays. Having woken to the rogue droplets of moisture that snuck past my tent fly to fall on my fast the following morning, I sat up to determine what would be my plan of action. Stay in the tent until the rain stopped? What if it continued all day? I hadn’t planned on an extra night up there and didn’t have enough food for it. But the rain was so heavy… Screw it. I’m tired. I laid back down and tried to get some more sleep, shifting to avoid the droplets.
Finally around late morning, the barrage of drops against my tent fly subsided to reveal the gentle sound of mountain breeze blowing by. The black clouds had passed.
Turning behind me to view the peak, I got the fantastic surprise of a snow-covered volcano! Neat to see it look so different after only one night! I packed up my wet tent and loaded the bike for my final push to the top. It had been 4 days of fun and challenging riding to get there, and I was excited to see what surprises would lay inside the the crater… Coming soon.