Roasting on the Road to San Cristobal: Hello, Chiapas!

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Where I Rode:

Day 1: Huatulco —> Zaachila

Day 2: Zaachila —> Salina Cruz —> Juchitan

Day 3: Juchitan —> La Ventosa —> San Pedro Tapanatepec

Day 4: San Pedro Tapanatepec —> Nuevo Tenochtitlan —> Cintalapa —> El Aguacero

Day 5: El Aguacero —> Ocozocoautla (try saying that 3 times fast!) —> Tuxtla Gutierrez —> El Chorreadero

Day 6: El Chorreadero —> San Cristobal de las Casas

It was to be a quick and easy paved crossing of the Mexican isthmus from the sweltering beaches of Oaxaca to the cooler high mountains of Chiapas. While it was reasonably quick, it was not exactly easy. 3 variables put slight wrinkles in the expected date of arrival:

Despite my topo map’s claim of the route beginning relatively flat, continuous steep rolling hills burned up my legs faster than expected. This is the challenge of topo maps: If the hills are less tall than the 100’ gradient between contour lines, they don’t show up. Plus, the extra weight of the pack raft gear was an extra challenge with which to contend. Still getting used to that weight since returning the raft to my rig in Oaxaca. Turned out the ups and downs of endless rollers would only increase upon entering Oaxaca. More on that later… 

Another challenge was the heat. Being damn near sea level in Southern Mexico in late July is not easy for someone more comfortable in cooler climates. Through all of mainland Mexico I’ve managed to remain above 5000’ of elevation with rare exception. This was my first experience of coastal riding since climbing out of Mazatlan in April. 100 degrees and humid, every day. The worst heat was between 11am and 5pm. A smart person would have started riding around 4am every day and rested during the hottest hours. But that smart person might have been clipped by a passing vehicle while riding in the dark on these windy narrow roads. So I just sweated it out, drank lots of water, took lots of shady breaks, and relished in the occasional breeze.

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Then there was the wind. It’s never a good sign when on a bike knowing you’re going to be crossing a large flat piece of land and you begin seeing windmills. Especially when they’re pointed in the direction you’re riding. Gloriously gusty cross/headwinds for about 100 or so kilometers while crossing the isthmus towards the mountains of Chiapas. At least it mitigated the heat a bit. Camping around here was a bit of a challenge. Huge open farm lands with not a lot of places to hide a tent. Luckily hotel rooms were pretty cheap, and while it’s a bit of a hit to my ego, I can clearly say I was only paying for the air conditioner. Worth every peso.

 

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Climbing into the front range of Chiapas from San Pedro Tepanatepec. Within the first 1000’ of climbing the temperature already dropped a bit and the cool breeze gently carried me to comfort.

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Chiapas! Last Mexican state for me. I’ve ridden through 14 other states so far, and excited to see what I would find here…

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Lots of big green mountains. Dense with vegetation. Lush and beautiful.

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That evening I followed signs off of the road that depicted some waterfalls nearby. Las cascades de Aguacero are located at the base of a large canyon, completely hidden from view from the paved road. 3 short kilometers on a well maintained dirt road brought me to the edge of the canyon with its glorious 1000’ cliffs.

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The road ended at a community-run ecopark. From the entrance, 724 impressively maintained steps drop you down the steep canyon walls to the river valley through which flows the Rio la Venta.

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Turns out this entrance is the put-in for a famous 4 day long white water kayak route that travels 80km up the river to places only reachable by water. I was deeply tempted to run the river. Unfortunately I was informed that the water levels were unusually low for this time of year and with the sharp underwater rocks my raft wouldn’t last long. Too bad.

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A short riverside rock scramble upstream leads to the fantastic Aguacero. So deeply lucky. I was the only one down there. I swam, drifted in the river and got drenched by the cool plummeting water. Delicious.

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Water flows out of the middle of the cliffs, as if there were a spring somewhere in there. Turns out Chiapas has a high density of a particular form of soft rock through which many underground rivers have developed over the centuries.

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 Back at the rim of the canyon, a small trail leads to a cave through which the river flows down, underground, to the falls many hundreds of feet below.

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 Lots of interesting new beings to appreciate here in the jungle…

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Yep. This ant is GOLD. It looked yellow from a distance but upon closer look, it shined in the light. So cool.

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 While walking me to the small camping area, a local guide pointed up at a low lying branch over my head. 15-20 of these giant caterpillars were grouped together, hanging underneath the branch. He pulled one off to show it to me and explain the simple preparation for how the locals cook and eat them. I chose to return this guy to the tree…

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Turns out you do NOT want to just pick up every beautiful caterpillar you see. This one I’m hold has the capacity to release some sort of neurotoxic chemical through your skin to cause extreme pain for a number of days. Look, don’t touch, unless a local touches first.

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Sooooooooooooo many amazing colors of butterfly in Chiapas. This is by no means among the most stunning, but the little buggers are quite difficult to photograph in the air! Blues, greens, yellows, reds, and all sorts of amazing combinations therein, I saw brilliant new manifestations every day!

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Rolling quickly through the busy city streets of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital city of Chiapas. It seems pretty industrial there, and didn’t really catch my eye enough to stay. Plus it was seated in the valley of the Grijalva river, so was hot and humid. At least there was a bike lane!

 

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Rio Grijalva. Countless tour boats of various sizes rocket up the river to the famous Sumidero Canyon with its 2500’ rock walls climbing straight up from the flowing waters. I considered rafting up river to see the canyon but was told it was 35kms upstream. That would take me 1-2 days on the packraft with it’s inefficient shape. Plus, there are crocodiles. Yeah, no thanks. I thought about getting a tour boat upstream to at least get a glimpse, but felt very clear that being stuck on a tiny boat for 3 hours with a big group of tourists was not how I wanted to spend my time. No worries, many more canyons and mountains to see!

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The libremiento (freeway) between Tuxtla Gutierrez and my destination city of San Cristobal de las Casas would involve climbing from about 1200’ to over 8000’ with some likely ups and downs in between. Good to store up on some rambutans which are dirt cheap around here.

 

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About 1000’ into the huge ascent, I found another sign for waterfalls from the road. This one is called El Chorreadero.  More of a developed water park than the Aguacero, this place had lots of terraced pools flowing through a canyon, fed by another underground river. Evidently when the water levels are lower in the Winter, local guides can take you through a technical climb up along the river past various underground lakes to its inlet about 6kms upstream. Again, bad timing, alas!

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View from the falls, mouth of the cave. About 300 feet inside the cave, I found a 30 foot  waterfall flowing out of the darkness.

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With only camera, I could only see it by using my camera’s flash. Pretty neat.

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A few hours later, the park closed, the families all left, and a park attendant graciously locked me in to the grounds to camp. This park, as are many of the natural parks in Mexico, is run by an ejido (community land given to a group of families and supported by the state). While the community was a couple of miles away, a small group of attendants rotate 4 day continuous shifts. So as I set up my tent under some rain protection, they all gathered around a table with beer and food prepared by some local señoras. I didn’t have to be asked twice to join them. A jolly bunch of guys, all related by blood or marriage, shared stories and laughter for a couple of hours before we all crashed. Me in my tent, them on temporary makeshift beds formed by facing 6-8 chairs together. great idea, the original hide-a-bed! I awoke to the light of day with the others and after a shared morning coffee, I continued my slow push push up the mountains.

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The road climbed past cloud level, curving around various steep hillside farms. Not a whole lot of undeveloped land around here.

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7000’ of climbing later, I rolled down a small descent into the beautiful city of San Cristobal de las Casas. I’d been kindly offered a contact there by the name of Thomas Martin. An ex-pat who’s lived in San Cris for many years, Tom has now bought and completely redone a beautiful home on a hillside right in the city. By stroke of luck, Tom had a roommate moving out just as I was arriving and had a room for me! I’ll share more soon, but my first night meeting Tom we climbed to his lush rooftop terrace to watch the sunset and full moonrise. I was awestruck by the view that Tom gets to see every single day. I think I might have to hang here for a minute… or two…

2 Responses

  1. mary ann pappanikou
    | Reply

    Scott: Love your pictures and can’t imagine all that you have seen. Like the close up of plants, insects and lovely scenery.

  2. Mom
    | Reply

    Gorgeous, wonderful pix, ‘Roni — I especially love the cascades and green valleys.
    And I’d know those callouses anywhere!
    Hope you continue to have great adventures in Guatemala (I just gave a beautifully embroidered journal cover free-trade from there to Naomi for graduation).
    We all had worried so much about Mexico and yet you did a remarkable job of making friends there and staying away from (most) of the bugs and creatures. Roll on into the sunset — LOVE you!

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