Burning Calories And Rubber In The Heat Of Oaxaca
Bicycle touring is an amazing way to travel but it can be slow-going. Our Journey started in Mexico with the plan to pedal south through Central and South America. I imagined cycling would be a romantic way to travel; avoiding the bus schedule we could be free as birds, not to mention feeling fit and healthy from all the exercise. In some instances this was the case but, with all travel plans and itineraries, it can take you by surprise.
Here’s a flavor of our journey along the Oaxacan coast.
We crossed the Oaxacan border like a couple of marinated chickens going into a fan-assisted oven. It was as if a thermostat was wired in at the state line. Perhaps the locals turned it up when they saw two sweaty gringos on fully loaded bicycles; the people of Oaxaca after all have a great sense of humor, and the maize-laden donkey must have felt we had our just deserts.
We pedaled along a quiet, meandering road. It was scorched on either side. The remains of burnt trees offered zero shade in the heat of the day. We should have stopped in the tiny village where the shopkeeper was offering frozen yogurts for five pesos and taken some time to cool down, but our over-cooked common sense had other plans. It urged us to continue the ascending road, towards the grey splodge on the GPS signaling another town 9 miles away.
It was here where we had our first experience of eating excellent local Oaxaqueñan cuisine. At the little cocina economica, we ordered iguana soup. Like most of these small, family-run businesses in Mexico, it is sponsored by the sugar giant, Coca Cola. The “fridge police” actually turned up just as we were chowing down. He inquisitively glanced at our delicious jug of homemade mango agua fresca while we mopped up our amarillo with steaming hot tortillas.
The Oaxacan coastline is as rich as the Oaxaqueñan culture; the ocean waves unpredictable, like the heat of their salsa. The small coastal village of Mazunte had its red flag up on the beach half the time we were there. The weather patterns were whirling around as a result of Hurricane Barbara bounding her way through Southwest Mexico and Guatemala.
We stayed with a local family in Mazunte, trading our bikes for books to study Spanish at El Instituto Iguana. Everyday for two weeks we ate three meals cooked by our host, Mamma Doña Sara, including massive breakfasts of huevos a la Mexicana (spicy scrambled eggs with cheese), chilaquiles (day-old tortillas simmered in salsa) and occasionally caldo de pescado (fish soup). Every dish was served with obligatory frijoles (beans), tortillas and salsa. Lunch and dinner alternated with simple carne dishes served with rice and beans, tuna, nopales (cactus), a variety of caldos and the incredibly rich, mole de pollo.
Mole de pollo is a local speciality in Oaxaca. It’s traditionally made for special occasions like the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). The taste of chocolate and smoky chipotles envelope your taste buds with each bite. It’s no wonder they cook this dish when it’s time to celebrate.
Our host, Doña Sara, was a traditional Oaxaqueñan woman. A mother of seven and a wife of nearly 40 years, her life is at home. She cooks for her family and negotiates the cost of fresh fish, cheese and fruit with the locals who swing by her nest on a daily basis. With her husband, they rent out 15 habitaciones. A respected woman of the community who, like a lot of Mexicans, hold values and family high on the daily agenda.
Now, two weeks eating hearty, Oaxaqueñan delights do not go unnoticed on the waistline. Getting back on the bike was a relief, but it was apparent I had lost some base fitness. My under-shorts dug into my sides imprinting a map of red highways on the now squishy part of my hips. My partner Lars was smart: he had taken himself off for multiple mountain biking jaunts in the mountains above Tonameca. If you can count bobbing around in the ocean as exercise, that was my only effort for the duration we were in Mazunte.
It was time to burn off the calories and hit the road with or without the heat of Oaxaca bearing down on our shoulders.
As it turned out, the heat of Oaxaca was with us, and believe me, It was unbearable once the clock struck 12. My hands were slipping off the handlebars, sweat pouring from my forearms. I was an ant under a microscope — a very claustrophobic, burning ant.
It’s happened to me a couple of times before, but this time it was a lot harder to recover. My lungs were closing in on themselves. I tried to keep a rhythm: in two, three, four . . out two, three — I couldn’t handle it. I was gasping for air, trying to force oxygen through my veins. I threw myself under a sliver of shade by the roadside, trying to breathe through a ridiculously uncomfortable anxiety attack.
My knight in a sweaty cycling top and bandana gave me water and kind, encouraging words. Remarkably, we were soon back on the bike. We needed to reach Salina Cruz to get off the highway and back into civilization, and continuing on was our only option.
Sun-cracked rubber from vehicles and decaying dogs littered the highway in 10-minute intervals. Most travelers don’t experience these delights, but we noticed them when we smelled that distinct pungent air that made us gag every time. It’s a recurring theme in every state of mexico. No longer will I gasp at the sight and smell of a measly dead rabbit on a British country lane back home.
We eventually arrived in Salina Cruz and the bustling streets were just as claustrophobic off the bike. This sizzling hot port town was clocking in at over 95 degrees fahrenheit with 80% humidity. The conflicting sound systems were only adding to the chaos.
It was decided: we needed to head the mountains. Oaxaca had been an assault on the senses, some amazing, some hard to stomach. My fitness would have to return if we were to climb, and I could only hope the ten-degree drop at night and the cooler temperatures in the day would invigorate me.
We left early the next morning and headed straight for the highway. Arrrgh! It was the most boring stretch of straight, flat road we had encountered in Mexico. After riding 30 miles with a head wind, and with the knowledge the terrain wouldn’t be changing for another three days, we decided enough was enough. We needed elevation, we needed elation, we needed a bus!
Going against our previous inclination to not use any other road transport, we escaped the heat of Oaxaca and crossed the border into Chiapas, arriving in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez nearly 2,000 feet above sea level. Contrary to reason, the steep climb up to San Cristobal de Las Casas was an intense relief. What bliss it was to feel coolness in the air and rain that actually made you shiver.
After going into the mountains, we stayed in them. We ducked and dived our way through Chiapas, the highlands of Guatemala and all the way into Honduras.
Nicaragua sounded interesting — and I was hoping my now-strong cycling legs would get us to the Caribbean coast. It’d been a while since I had taken a dip in the ocean.
By Jenny Ball
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenny Bell is currently cycling through Latin America with her partner Lars. She is finding her feet on the pedals, becoming a stronger rider with every climb. Lars carries the majority of the weight, while Jenny carries her little guitar to write and share music along the way. Follow their adventure at TourInTune.com.