Pueblitos, Ranchos, y Teracerías: Durango into Zacatecas

 

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 4 beautiful days of riding from Durango carried me over many mountains and valleys, past sweet mountain towns filled with smiles, waves, horses and cows. Within a few miles of exiting the outskirts of Durango, I was on dirt farm roads connecting my way South toward the mountainous area of Mezquital.

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The only road I could find to connect all the way down was paved, but still quite a stunning tour through the hillsides. Unfortunately it was harder work than I’d hoped. I had 2500’ of elevation to descent and had to pedal every foot of it. The headwinds were severe. Enough to bring me to a stop on the declining grade. Sigh.

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 Always a surprise to land in a small developed town when you’ve been riding through empty countryside all day. Mezquital was busy with farmers and cowboys. All staring at me. I didn’t get the feeling that many people choose to tour through this town. Perhaps its the fact that the only way to continue South through town is to climb 4500’ into the Michilia mountain reserve. Either way, I was greeted with warmth and curiosity. 

 

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A little lunch, and get climbing. Yet another route I’d assumed would be rustic dirt road, paved all the way to the top. Such is life in Mexico, you roll with what comes.

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“Prohibited to throw away dead animals.” Yep.

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I neared the summit around sunset, and in perfect timing saw a flat bluff a few hundred yards off of the road overlooking the peaks of the Michilia. Just me and the enormous ant hills staring off at the spaciousness as the sun cast its final glow upon the cliffs.

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The following day I came across my first locked gate on mainland Mexico. The route I’d drawn on Google Earth directed me down that road down and back up a small canyon in order to save a 20KM ride around. I chanced it. Through the challenge of efficiently and carefully getting an 80 pound bike over a 6’ gate, 5 times during this section, I gained much compassion for similar stories I’d read from Nick and Lael during their bikepacking adventures in South Africa.

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 Enormous pine pom-poms. Like 2’ across.

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Beautiful to see the nopales cacti in bloom!

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Google route mapped me off the main roads through miles of farmland toward the next mountain range. Pretty neat actually. To gain faith in this mapping algorithm which I’m entrusting my route to, that it has successfully carried me off-pavement to some pretty neat places!

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 Of course it’s not the smoothest path at times, but luckily I love the rough stuff!

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Through gates of stone to enter or exit pueblitos (little towns).

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Always an interesting experience to roll through the streets of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, especially when it’s so small that it was not on any of my maps.

 

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Fun to pass through random gateways of buildings while still following the main road through town!

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Some towns had large rodeo rings…

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… But almost all of them had a beautiful and clean church within the town center.

 

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One town was largely deserted, but boasted miles on end of stone walls delineating property lines. I wondered if it was actually easier or harder to build these walls than a typical fence.

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Miles outside of the last town, the rough rocky dirt road randomly transitioned into this Oz-like pathway up the mountainside. Beautifully laid stones for the next 3 miles, albeit a bit bumpy.

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Cattle guards. They’re pretty interesting around here. DEFINITELY not constructed with cyclists in mind. Hit these suckers at the wrong angle and you’re in a world of hurt!

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Perhaps something like this… Luckily I just staged this one. I was repeatedly tempted to see if I could balance the plank across with each approaching guard, but not willing to risk the consequences to me or the bike.

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Final sections of road approaching the outskirts of Zacatecas. The smooth farm road faded into a rough rocky 2 track as is climbed up to the level of the city, 400 feet above. So fun!

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I arrived at the outskirts of the city around mid afternoon with a well-earned tailwind at my back. Having ridden the rough dirt double track all the way into town, I rolled onto pavement to be greeted by a sudden barrage of cars, honking, people, and buildings. Weaving through dense bumper to bumper traffic along the highway into the city center, I enjoyed one last long steep climb. The town of Zacatecas is nested within a range of mountains, with it’s sprawling development crawling up and over the hillsides in every direction, so the only way in is up and over. El Centro Historico, with its exquisitely preserved buildings and cobblestone streets, covers the valley floor.

Before even reaching the historic district, a car pulled up slowly beside me on the highway as I grunted my way up the long climb. Assuming they were just gawking at the ‘crazy’ biker riding the highway into town, I ignored them at first. They rolled down their window to ask where I had ridden from. I typically get annoyed when people try to talk to me while I’m climbing a hill from the comforts of their cars, but in this case they just seemed so nice, I responded in kind. The family pulled over and asked if they could take photos of me, feeling very proud of me and my journey. How could I say no? Luckily I took advantage of the captive local audience to ask where the cheap hotels/hostels would be. They pointed me in the right direction, and offered the advice to have no fear of safety in Zacatecas. Crime is minimal and people are very hospitable! After the impromptu photo shoot with mother/daughter, then another with father, they sent me on my way.

 

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Some of the most beautiful architecture I’ve ever seen. Please ignore the Starbucks sign to the right. I tried to.

 

 It did not take long to appreciate the extreme beauty of this city. Narrow cobblestone streets bordered with rich colonial architecture as far as I could see. Random alleys off of every street with steep staircases climbing up the hillsides. Fancy clothes and hairstyles. This was very different than the rural mountain towns I’d seen over the last 4 days.

I miraculously found the hostel quite effortlessly, lucky enough to get one of the last beds for the weekend. It was located in the heart of downtown, directly behind the main cathedral. There was even a rooftop garden deck with tables and chairs overlooking the city, not to mention by far the cheapest lodging available. Sweet! I secured my stuff, unpacked, and took a much needed shower.

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 Freshly cleaned and clothed, I set out into town to find food and sunglasses (the white zebra glasses I’ve deeply loved for some time fell victim to the weight of my bicycle toppling onto them due to high winds a few days back). Looking out to the horizon from downtown, I could see a gondola car being carried across the city about 200 feet overhead. I followed its path to the top of the tallest hillside which abutted the city center. 

 

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 Known as La Bufa, this steep slope loomed about 1000 feet over the city with a beautiful rock feature at its peak and a small museum just beneath. Given that sunset was approaching, I took the opportunity to hike up to the summit via a beautiful system of steep cobblestone paths.

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The craggy summit made for really fun bouldering as I found my perch from which to watch the sun dip below the distant mountains. As winds raged past me, I took in the rare opportunity to be so far above such a beautiful city, while still being inside of it. Even the steep peaks in Rio de Janeiro couldn’t compare to this view. 

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 I chose to let gravity guide a different route back into town, rather than follow a map. Given the advice of my welcoming committee by the highway, I had nothing to fear in wandering randomly through dark alleys and stairways as I wove my way down. It was really fun actually. So many hidden staircases between random buildings, Tiny alleys with beautiful rock arches connecting winding steep streets.

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   I landed back at the site of the main cathedral only by following the invitations of live mexican music being played in the town square immediately adjacent to it. The streets were packed with people wandering from band to band, bar to bar. After some time, I made it back to the hostel to settle in for the night, the sounds of snare drums and tubas ringing through the streets murmuring a lullaby to my heavy eyelids.

3 Responses

  1. Ben Shimizu
    | Reply

    Wonderful scenery man! Great to read up. Trying my best to catch up.

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Thanks brother. Looking forward to catching up with you!!

  2. Dana VanVoo
    | Reply

    Fantastic scenery. Zacatecas is absolutely gorgeous. I love how it’s tucked away in the mountains. And that cobblestone road was beautiful. Loving your adventure! Viva Mexico!

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