Where I Rode:
— Various mountain bike routes around San Cristobal including San Felipe and San Jose.
— Big loop out to the traditional Tzotzil communities of Zinacantan and San Juan Chamula.
— Out and back to the ruins and cascades near Palenque via the ruins of Tonina.
Two glorious weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. My momentum certainly isn’t what it was back in Alaska. Finding myself stopping more often and for longer periods. But it’s hard not to take advantage of fantastic opportunities. I was put in touch with a pretty fantastic human being here, Thomas, who offered me a place to stay in his house without hesitation or even having met. Immediately striking upon arrival into town was the perfect balmy temperature. After 2 weeks sweating and panting through the low elevations of coastal Oaxaca and the lowlands of Chiapas, San Cristobal sits at almost 7000’ and was perfect for my hot-blooded system.
The night I arrived in town, Thom invited me to his rooftop deck to watch the moonrise of the impending blue moon. With a deep knowledge of botany and gardening, entering his house from the street was like walking into a lush jungle. Flowers of various colors erupting from dense vines, cascading from the various terraces, He had transformed a drab old cement home into a paradise. Perfectly placed high on an urban hillside, we could watch the final rays of sun over the mountains to the West while awaiting the moon from the East. Quite a show we were privy to enjoy along with his 2 housemates Laurel and Kiri, who were spending a year in San Crix for Laurel’s PhD work in climate change. All three are also fantastic musicians as I discovered.
The master in his lair. Thomas is a true guitar hero. He runs a professional recording studio out of his home, lays screaming guitar tracks across many genres, and is a huge wealth of musical knowledge. Many hours were spent listening to the myriad recordings he’s made from dub to reggae to demonic christmas song death metal. It was quite a refreshing break from the Mexican banda music in which I’d been submerged for a bit too long!
Laurel and Kiri play a style of music I had trouble classifying. I quickly stopped trying. Kiri plays a uniquely rhythmic style of guitar and combines his own sung language with throat singing. Laurel tears it up on electric cello. Really a treat to watch these guys practice. They have a really wonderful group based out of Tucson where they permanently reside, called Astral Folk. Worth a listen for sure! They were kind enough to let me fumble may way onto a set of conga drums to play together one night. It had been years since I’d been in a setting of composing new rhythms on the spot to such interesting music. I loved it. I wasn’t smooth or polished, but got to touch a part of myself that has laid dormant for a long time. Deep gratitude.
Kiri and Laurel invited me one night to a performance of traditional Son Jarocho music, indigenous to Southern Mexico. Beautiful to watch the various strumming of strings with a rhythmic stamping dance style.
Down in the center of town, San Cristobal is a busy city with two long andadores (walking streets) running quite a distance up the hillside toward the gorgeous Guadalupe church. Interesting to note that one of the andadores was full with mostly Mexican people while the other seemed to attract all the international tourists.
The local bike shop in town, Terra Bike, helped me get through a bit of a couple of repair challenges. Though the shop was pretty simply supplied, they mechanics had some strong knowledge.
One of the beautiful aspects of life in Mexico. One of the bolts on my crank had stripped, and needed to be replaced. The bike shop sent me down the street to a welder who added another bolt on to pull off the first. 20 minutes and 2 dollars later, I was back in business. I don’t even know how I’d go about finding a welder that fast in Seattle.
While hanging out at Terra Bike for an afternoon the staff told me about some group rides that happen during the week. I was able to head out with the group a few different days getting to know some really fun single and double track through the mountains and farmlands. Yep, I’m taller than most Mexican people. I still get a kick out of how amazed people are with the size of my bike. Fits me great, but watching anyone else take it for a spin looks like a child on an adult bike!
After a few days’ deliberation about my route out of San Cristobal, I decided to taste the best of both worlds: Ride Northeast down the huge descent to the famous ruins of Palenque, then return to head directly South into Guatemala via the high mountain plateau to stay in cooler temperatures rather than boiling my way South from Palenque at sea level. Despite a loss of almost 7000’ from San Cris to Palenque, the 140 mile route somehow involved about 15,000’ of elevation gain! I thought I could do it in one long day starting early, but was proven completely wrong. No stretch of road is flat around here. Endless ups and downs on a very tight narrow road that is the main route between the two towns meant sharing the road with motos, colectivos (pickup trucks overflowing with people packed into the flatbed like standing sardines), and tour busses — all screaming around the corners with seemingly reckless abandon. At least I was riding lighter. I had left all my electronics, pack raft and other odds/ends back in San Cris and was only carry the bare essentials for survival. What a treat to feel the bike so light for a few days! After a while on the road it became clear that despite some close calls I was not going to get run over. The only way to relax through the long ride was to put on the earphones and press play, tuning out the endless traffic. I know, sounds like a really bad idea. But it worked out for the best.
Lots of small Zapatista communities line the hills of Chiapas.
Arriving down in the near-sea level town of Palenque, I followed directions to the national park entrance and a hostel complex to which I’d been referred by the name of Panchan. Co-owned by a group of brothers, each had their own set of cabañas and rooms for rent nestled within the dense jungle forest. Don Mucho’s (cheesy name, I know) was the community center for all guests in the complex, offering live music every night with cheep beer. I found the cheapest room I could get and crashed from a long day’s riding.
The star attraction for Palenque is the enormous Mayan city discovered by western anthropologists in the 20th century. Literally dis-covered, as in the jungle had reclaimed the city after it had been abandoned by it’s indigenous inhabitants, and was then cleared of it’s overgrown flora over many years. Evidently only about 10% of the structures have been fully unearthed, the majority still buried within the dense jungle.
Pakan. The famous ruler of Palenque.
The queen’s bathing pools. Unfortunately guarded by park workers to prevent swimming. Sigh.
The original tomb of Pakal. Exhumed in the mid 1900’s, the sarcophagus lid was beautifully decorated with ornate Mayan iconography. Even more captivating to me was the enormous glowing plexiglass housing protecting it from contact!
Walking back to my hostel from the ruins, I heard some very loud squaking. Gazing down at me from the trees were 3 enormous parrots! In combination with my first monkey siting a few hours later, it became very clear that I’d entered a new realm.
Many beautiful waterfalls and cascades are accessible from the Palenque-San Cristobal highway. Most appear to be quite touristy with large busses dropping hoards of visitors for short photo shoots. Luckily I was sent to a great, off-the-beaten-path destination in the remote community of Roberto Barrios. So glad I took the long ride up the mountainside to get there. I had the entire place to myself for a few hours before one small mexican family joined me at an emerald green pool.
Lots of sun and lots of rainfall make for fast growing plants. The jungle quickly seeks to overcome any man-made features in its path.
Yes. I’m on a bus. 140 kilometers of tight windy roads on which I’d already ridden to return to San Cristobal did not warrant the work for me. This was the first time on a bus since leaving Seattle over a year ago. Very surreal. Floating nearly 10’ above the ground in a smooth chamber of controlled air, I was able to observe just how narrow the roads were. Who the hell would try to ride a bike on this crap??
Final morning in San Cristobal. It was surprisingly difficult to leave the comfort of Thom’s lush urban paradise. I’d enjoyed my own room for 2 weeks, great conversations with everyone in the house, and access to a real kitchen to cook some real meals. But Central America beckoned. Luckily Thom was leaving the same day for his first return to the US in 7 years. I jumped on his coat tails right out the front door…
Well, extended coat tails. Laurel, Kiri and I got into an inspiring discussion about life, passion and community as I was just about to roll out. Two hours later, I mustered up the wherewithal to head out solo again.