Where I Rode:
Day 1: Refugio Piedra Grande —> Maquixtla —> Xacacomulco —> Quimixtlan —> El Arenal
Day 2: El Arenal —> Teocelo —> Coatepec —> Xalapa
Day 3 and 4: Around Xalapa
Day 5: Xalapa —> Jalcomulco… And a few more days here for white water madness.
It was a restless night at 14,000 feet. Having summited the Pico de Orizaba the previous day, my legs had been uncontrollably cramping all night to the extent where no amount of self-massage was having an effect. Luckily, Nici had been nurse back in Austria and was carrying with her some muscle relaxant pills. Ah the miracles of modern medicine! Managed to get a few hours sleep after that. We awoke to another grey day on the mountain, the views we’d worked so hard to access still shrouded in cloud cover, and prepared to descend. Phillip and Nici would be heading down via the West route from whence we came, while I would be heading east toward the state of Veracruz.
A musician I met in Durango had suggested I visit the city of Xalapa in Veracruz, as he said there was quite a large community of latin percussionists there. Given that I’d not played AfroCuban music at all since living in Seattle, it felt like a great opportunity to contact that world again, see how it felt after such a long hiatus.
Descending from Piedra Grande to the East. Impressively, the visibility got even worse. It was actually quite painful because I could tell I was on the edge of a big cliffside for much of the ride, and yet could see nothing. Alas, the nature’s suggestion to focus on what was right near me. Very cool to watch to plant life change with every 1000 feet of descent.
The enormous “foothills” to the Pico de Orizaba. As my elevation dropped, the humidity rose. Quite visible in the density of green life clinging to all the steep mountain walls. Again, low cloud cover prevented what I knew were awe inspiring landscapes, sadly.
Sweet little towns all along the ridge road of the enormous green mountains, of course each replete with a beautiful and colorful church.
After 7500 feet of continuous descending, route again lead me up hill. A steep hill. Studying my topo map for a minute while snacking, I saw I’d have to climb 2000’ in about 3 miles, which made for some unrideably steep sections. I was only beginning to realize that most of the mountains in this range run East-West, with drainages between them running East to the Gulf of Mexico. Significance: Traveling either North or South through this terrain would mean endless climbs and descents over these mountains. There would be no flat ground from here. The damp muddy road to the right, I noticed occasional dirt staircase shortcuts. Curious…
Unfortunately the varied grade was not to be the hardest lesson of the day. These mountains were so verdant for good reason. Lots of rain. And with lots of rain, dirt roads turn to mud. The “road” I’d picked quickly devolved from pavement to gravel to dirt to ever deepening mud. From here I would be walking for a while.
Find a foothold. Take one step forward. Attempt to drag the bike forward with me. Experience the friction coefficient of mud give out before the mud would release its hold on the bike tires. Slide/fall backwards 1-2 steps. Try again with another foothold. This is how the following 3 hours went. Yay.
The road further devolved into single track at various points, occasionally widening to cattle trails webbing across the hilly meadows.
New and colorful plants over here!
I saw this bright orange color from a distance and thought it was some sort of netting from a farmer that had been thrown off the side of the road onto the brush.
Nope. Just a really interesting and quite pervasive vine.
Finding my way onto pavement for a while, I climbed and descended the rest of the day through ranches, small towns, ravines, and cliff sides. By dusk, I’d descended over 14,000 feet in a single day. Certainly a record for me! It was time for sleep. Unfortunately all the attractive fields for camping were all fenced in and apparently active ranches. Some consistent searching led to an abandoned farm which, after hopping a little barbed wire fence, provided beautiful green grass on which to reside for the night.
A wall of ferns clinging to a steep embankment by the roadside.
Coming from more open farmlands and pine forests, the density of plant life over here was still quite impressive. Not one food of ground was visible, as plants fought for access to the Sun’s energy. Many trees had a number of other plants growing over, under or through them, with others growing on top of those plants. Really glad to be on a road in this climate!
Two days of travel carried me into the capitol city of Xalapa. Through the university district runs a cool waterway of connecting ponds with walkways and fountains. Funky colored buildings all around. Lots of music. I began my search for AfroCuban drummers at the University of Veracruz percussion department. Leaving a note for the latin percussion teacher, I continued on in search of dance studios that might teach AfroCuban dance. Unfortunately there were no classes happing at that time, but I got some more names. A quick search and some messages on Facebook lead to a great meeting the next morning with a few drummers: Alejandro, Wilka, Gabriel, and Marco. Absolutely lovely to touch the bata drums again after such a long break. Very glad I came.
Very cool to see the amount of bike advocacy present here. “Protejalos” — Protect Them.
It’s not a cyclist, it’s a life. <— 5 feet —> Respect it.
“ One coffee shop in town, La Bicicleta Roja, was run entirely on bike power, right down to the coffee grinder!
Then there was this guy I passed in the city plaza. Sharpening knives for people with a stone rigged off his back wheel. When done for the day, he just takes the bike off the stand, packs it up, and rides home!
Marimbas are a staple in the street music of Veracruz. Very cool to hear their style of playing…
One cannot leave Xalapa without visiting the Museo de Antropologia, with it’s great collection of Maya, Aztec, Olmec and other pre-hispanic sculptures. This Olmec head is about 12’ tall.
Cranial mutilation. Common in pre-hispanic times, it was actually highly esteemed among the indigenous people of various Mesoamerican tribes.
On my way out of Xalapa, I noticed this sign for an “Auto Hotel”. I guess these places are quite common in Mexico, as some other cyclist friends stayed in one at some point. They’re basically hourly hotels for secret romantic outings. Not a new concept but the presentation was impressive. The hotels are all very clean both outside and in. You drive into your own private garage inside the hotel and enter the room from the garage. The hotel attendant waits around a corner for you to come down and pay, so that it’s never known who accompanied you there. I rode by, but thought the idea was pretty funny.
Dropping to the lowest elevation I’d reached since Mazatlan back in April (now at 1,100’), I rode towards the next destination, Jalcomulco.
Internationally known as one of the white water rafting meccas of Mexico, I came to “Jalco” as it’s locally termed to see if I could develop some skills in the river. I’d purchased an Alpacka pack raft while back in the states and sent it ahead to friends in Oaxaca, not aware of all the rafting opportunities in Veracruz. Alas, through friends of friends I found a contact in town who guided rafting trips and said he’d get me hooked up with a boat and teach me some things.
The sweet little town of Jalcomulco is set in a beautiful valley surrounded by lush green cliffs. The main river flowing in area, Rio Antigua, was at high volume due to recent rains. Yeah!
I quickly hooked up with my contact Ivan (right), a pro white water kayaker from Chile. I guess people come from far and wide to guide here in Jalco. There are about 20 guiding companies and over a hundred guides in town. Ivan was kind enough to put me up in his house with his friend Guillermo from back home.
Ivan and Guillermo got me out on the river two days in a row. The put me in a Ducky (inflatable kayak) to get started because they’re a lot more stable than kayaks but utilize similar technique. We ran both the upper (Barranca Grande) and lower (Antigua) sections of the river, and it was… awesome. So completely different than my previous experience of white water from a guided 5-8 person raft, this was much more intense. Especially when I made wrong moves (which happened multiple times) and fell off the boat into the white water. Ivan and Guillermo were a fantastic support team however — one would recover the ducky while the other would swoop in and let me grab the rigging on his boat until we floated to calmer waters. The biggest rapids were supposedly around class 3-4, plenty big for me as a beginner. I’m pretty excited to get to the next rapids South of Oaxaca for more learning!
Photo care of Guillermo Walsen
Life in Jalco: run the rivers by day, hang out and libate by night. The cost of living in town is dirt cheap, so it’s an easy place to get sucked into for longer than expected. It captured me for 5 days!
With drinking comes debauchery. Luckily this local guide grew up in town, and has been jumping off this 25’ bridge his entire life. In fact, 25’ is no big deal for Chucho. He told me he kayaks over a lot of big waterfalls around Veracruz and Chiapas, the largest of which is well over 100’!!!
Unfortunately, Jalcomulco is not immune to the common problem of development. A large Brazilian company is currently trying to build a set of damns (called presas) on the Antigua which would effectively kill all sustainable life in town. Given it’s dependence on the river for tourism and fishing, a damn cause grave impact on this community. Ivan’s friend Guillermo is currently filming a documentary on the subject to raise awareness in kayaking communities in order to solicit help. I’ll share the link once it’s available.
All in all, my week of exploration through Veracruz had been quite varied and inspiring on many levels. Watching the landscape change between 14,000’ and 1000’ was pretty amazing. Playing AfroCuban music after over a year’s hiatus was important, insightful. Stepping out onto the tip of the white water kayaking iceberg was scintillating, intense, and taught me a deeper respect for the river.
But it was time to continue South. 4 long days of riding would provide Oaxaca city as their reward. And of course, a 5000’ climb would begin right out of town. No warm up. Just get on that bike and start sweating…