One Month in Mexico

Nathaniel floating in Cenote Samula vear Valladolid Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel floating in Cenote Samula near Valladolid Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

It’s been one month since we left Oakley California heading towards I-5, and then quickly turned around 6 miles down the road because I forgot my wallet and Nathaniel forgot his malaria medication.

Today we find ourselves hanging out in a hotel we don’t remember the name of in Chetumal Mexico watching the rain drip till monday morning when we can cross the border to Belize.

When you drive a motor vehicle as deep into Mexico as we have from the United States your are required to leave a sizable deposit with the army bank Banjercito to pay for its temporary importation.

Once you leave Mexico the money is refunded to you in either cash or on your credit card (depending on how you first paid) and like the US most banks are not open on Sunday. We could technically leave Mexico today but it would mean giving up our $400 deposits.

Unfortunately, Chetumal is not a city I am enjoying very much. It’s the largest Mexican city to the northern Belize border and it doesn’t have a true Centro that we’ve seen with an adorable plaza and strolling families.

Chetumal is the seat of government for Quintana Roo (Our 18th state we’ve passed through) but the blocks near the water are an endless series of shoe stores, auto parts stores and Mini Supers – rinse and repeat.

This city it was almost completely destroyed in the 40’s and 50’s by three major Hurricanes. When they rebuilt they rebuilt for the next big one and I think it stripped the city of its charm.

Because of the time we killed in La Paz getting paperwork done we had to blow through a large portion of Mexico that we originally had plans for. So, we are both looking forward to getting to Belize, slowing things down a little bit and absorbing the places we see. -Alex

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It is sometimes mind boggling that we have been on this trip for a month and have been primarily in one country the whole time. I never fully appreciated how expansive Mexico is till driving across it, and looking at the distance reading on my speedometer.

What some may not realize is that Alex and I have now already traveled further in Mexico then we are going to travel to get through all of Central America. And thus, the reason for slowing down a bit to really absorb the places we travel through.

As we get ready to exit the country that has been our home for the last month, I look back on our time here.

Most of the concerns about this trip were over safety, with many remarking that Mexico is not a safe country to be in (Alex’s Mexican family were shocked we hadn’t had any issues with police on our ride).

Knocking on wood now, we haven’t had any issues with police, drug cartels, or petty theft and I have found the Mexican people to be overwhelmingly warm and hospitable. At a random intersection outside of Tuxtepec, a man on the side of the road saw we looked confused and told us how to get to the main city. All of the people we have asked for directions have been more then willing to help these two intrepid motorcyclists.

Many construction works and pedestrians by have waved or flashed peace signs as we have ridden by. Questions of safety ring true for any country (we did purposely ride through Baja to avoid certain parts of Northern Mexico, as much as for the beautiful scenery) as there are many areas of San Francisco I wouldn’t want to walk through after midnight, common sense goes a long way in any travel situation, even when that travel is to a local store for milk at night.

The sun sets on Cataviña Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

The sun sets on Cataviña Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Outside of safety concerns, what has struck me most about Mexico (and something I have mentioned to Alex several times) is the natural beauty of this country. Mexico is beautiful! I have seen California, Arizona, Scotland in its countrysides and experienced high deserts, forest capped mountains, and tropical beaches in its scenery, to mention a few. Mexico has a diverse topography I never knew existed (I pictured it as mostly desert and cacti) that makes road tripping a visual delight.

All I can recommend is getting away from the tourist traps along the coasts and diving into the rich landscape, culture, and amazing food that Mexico has to offer.

I am looking forward to Belize, and finally getting to the third country of the trip, but it is bittersweet to leave Mexico as it was the proving ground. We have spent a lot of time and sweat in this country and I look forward to returning someday.

For now, we look toward the ocean and a whole new country to explore! -Nathaniel

The land of Piñas and Topes

Piñas at roadside stall just off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Piñas at a roadside stall just off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

One of the tidbits of knowledge that Ceasar (Alex’s cousin) passed onto us, well mostly for me, was that the country between Tuxtepec and Villahermosa could be considered the Land of Pineapple’s.  Through Alex’s translation for me, he said something akin to “pineapples as far as the eyes can see” with a motion of the arms encompassing a wide circle.

Once we had chosen the northern road out of Oaxaca, it was predetermined for us that we would pass through the land of piñas (where you could get a bottle of fresh squeezed juice for a $1.00).  Getting a later start than normal to the morning, we headed out of Tuxtepec, at fifteen miles an hour.

$15 pesos of Piña juice at a roadside stall off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

$15 pesos of Piña juice at a roadside stall off Highway 145 in Mexico. Photo: Alex Washburn

Tuxtepec is not the center of the universe in Mexico, and once you get on the back country roads and highways of Mexico, they run right through towns, literally. The way that they ensure the safety of the people in those towns is to construct topes (speed bumps) of varying sizes and inclines. Alex hit one of these going out of Oaxaca hard enough to make her think that she might throw-up.  Anyway, going along to Villahermosa was filled with tope after tope, which makes for tiring driving as you never really get up to cruising speed for long (plus if you don’t see the tope, it can make for a jarring experience).

After stopping for some breakfast/lunch, Alex had me lead for a while and gave me instructions to stop at a pineapple stand that looked good.  We got about fifty miles down the road, and I started sweating thinking I had missed the last one, when all of the sudden, like an oasis in the desert, a stand appeared in the distance with more pineapples than you can fathom.

Women stood in the road selling bottles of sweet, golden nectar while an older husband and wife stood in a shack on the side of the road crushing pineapples.  I knew this was the place, the land of the piñas, and we pulled over, took our jackets off and picked up a bottle of fresh pineapple juice for a mere $15 pesos.

Imagine being able to stick a straw into a pineapple and drink the juice straight out of it. That is what it tasted like.  Alex commented:

“You may never have pineapple juice this fresh ever again.”

It made the moment even more poignant.  Sitting in the shade, the sun high in the sky and burning, the juice was as sweet and tangy as I had hoped, and it fueled us better then any Gatoraid could have (I am sure it had more sugar then two cokes together, but it was delicious).

One of the Piña vendors we talked to along Highway 145. They juice it, bottle it, ice it and sell it the same day. Photo: Alex Washburn

Portrait of a Piña vendor along Highway 145. They juice it, bottle it, ice it and sell it the same day. Photo: Alex Washburn

With our thirst quenched, we continued on toward our goal of Villahermosa.  About fours hours into the riding of the day, the tope spotted landscape gave way to toll roads of US quality freeway status and we started to gain some distance.

We stopped for gas about an hour out of Villahermosa, and as we started to exit the Pemex (which I think are the only real gas stations in Mexico) I saw the sheen of water on the freeway.  Not thinking too much of it, we both continued over it, and that is when I grasped our mistake.  Alex made it across but as soon as my front tire hit the liquid, I began to skid and to my horror realized that the substance was oil.

As in all life situations where you brush against true adrenaline producing moments, time slowed down and I remember thinking clearly that I wasn’t going to be able to keep the bike up, that I was going down.  The next thing I knew I was on the ground, and then I was up again, my muscles moved faster then I could think, and I was trying to lift my bike up, slipping in oil that covered a wide expanse of pavement.

It was a river.

Nathaniel does a systems check on his bike (and himself) after a car accessories vendor helped him to an oil free stretch of pavement. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel does a systems check on his bike (and himself) after a car accessories vendor helped him to an oil free stretch of pavement. Photo: Alex Washburn

Luckily for me a guy came running up and offered a hand to get the bike up (Alex was able to stay upright, but couldn’t park her bike in the mess) and helped me get it over to the side of the road ahead of Alex.  I thanked him as he ran off, maybe he was a guardian angel because he was gone even as quickly as he had shown up, and I assessed the damage.  Other then some new scrapes to the panniers and my handle bar protecters, the bike was no worse for the wear.

Even a couple days removed, my heart still starts pumping when I think about this, but thankfully we were both going slow, and there hasn’t been any lasting damage to the bike (it fired right up once we got the situation under control). Furthermore, there was no bodily damage, I was completely protected by my equipment, I wasn’t trapped under the bike (thanks to the panniers), and the riding gear has paid off in my opinion. I now know what riding in oil is like, and I avoid substances on the road, even if they look like water just to be safe.

On the outskirts of San Mateo Yetla on Highway 175 out of Oaxaca. Photo: Alex Washburn

On the outskirts of San Mateo Yetla on Highway 175 out of Oaxaca. Photo: Alex Washburn

We barely made it to Villahermosa in the last lingerings of the day, and with heavy traffic leading into the city, pulled off at the first decent looking roadside motel for the night.  If it wasn’t for the piña juice I might not have made it.

The next day was more riding, heading north, I distinctly remember getting the smell of salt in my nostrils and knowing that the ocean was near.  I grew up in Santa Cruz, and while I may not have appreciated it then, the sea has a claiming effect on me that makes everything feel right with the world.

“How can things be bad if your by the ocean?”

We rode the whole day, along coasts lined with palm trees and fisherman.  The final rays of the sun were fading over the water as we rode into Campache.  It is the capital of the state and you can feel the forced jubilance it emulates for tourists in its historic district.  For us it was just a hotel room, a warm shower, and a place to hang our helmets for the night.  I am sure it is an amazing town, but we wont know on this trip.

Our days in Mexico are numbered, tonight we are sleeping in Merida and we plan Chichen-itza and a cenote (sinkhole) in the coming days, more adventures to come.

Days of the Dead

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as the residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance party on November 2, 2013.

A man dressed in drag dances and poses in the lights of a police vehicle as residents The residents of Tule Mexico exit the city cemetery following a dance part on November 2, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

Alex did a pretty good job of filling everyone in on what was going on in Oaxaca for day of the dead (in fact there are multiple days of the dead, with one big celebration at the beginning for All Hallows’ Eve). It begs to be mentioned that for every flash happy maverick we saw in the cemeteries, there were plenty of tourists being respectful of the families and celebration (though there were a crushing amount of tourists).

On Friday afternoon we got back from Tule cemetery and having been out late the night before, going to three cemeteries for Day of the Dead, we thought we’d just spend the night in. However, someone was going around the hostel promoting a cemetery tour that night that would go to a couple of cemeteries we hadn’t been too.

We said yes and signed up, and only after did I find out it didn’t start till 8:30 and was a five to six hour tour (you read that right) meaning it wouldn’t be over till one or two in the morning. I almost ducked out at the last minute before the tour started, and after what was to come, I wish I had.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The tour was the worst both Alex and I had ever been on for a multitude of reasons. The person conducting the tour (asshat) hadn’t done any research and half of the cemeteries we went to ended up being closed for the night by the time we got there. Of the two we did visit, one was Tule (where we had just been earlier in the day) and the other was the main cemetery in Oaxaca (where we had been the night before). While touring the two cemeteries we did go to, the guide didn’t offer any insight or knowledge of what was going on and I honestly think Alex and I know more about Day of the Dead than he did.

After leaving the main cemetery at 11pm, we then proceeded to be dragged from closed cemetery to closed cemetery until finally at 1am, the tour asked for the guide to just take us back to the hostel (where he informed us he wanted to take us to one more place that was supposed to be happening, we didn’t bite). Once returned, he offered us a free tour the next night, but we all declined citing other plans. I could think of nothing worse then to have to relive that experience again. I would pay money to not have to go a second time.

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

We spent the last night touring the celebrations in Tule and Oaxaca, which is where I met a posse of drag queens and was escorted around town. The next morning it was time to pack all the gear, load the bikes and head on out to the gulf coast.

Alex’s cousin (who is a truck driver) told us that there were three options out of Oaxaca: 1) was a pleasant, but relatively boring back-track, 2) was over 200 miles of hairpins going kind of the wrong direction, and 3) (the one we picked) was just over 100 miles of s-turns with gorgeous views and a nature reserve.

Heading out of Oaxaca and into the mountains, it was all climb for the first two hours of the ride. What had started as a warm, muggy day in the valley quickly turned into a chilling, foggy climb where at one point we broke through the fog (yes literally climbed above the clouds),

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

The road out of Oaxaca. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

before descending once more into the mist. However, about right at the halfway point, the road circled the mountain and started heading down and we were suddenly in the middle of the nature reserve complete with roadside waterfalls.

If you are ever in the Oaxaca region with your bike, you have to take the road from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca (hwy-175). Make sure your bike can handle the mountain terrain, but the views you get will be some of the best anywhere. We finally made our final descent, and rode on to Tuxtepec for the night.

Bye Bye Baja

Eva and Rick are the lovely people who own Baja Backpackers in La Paz Mexico. Because of the problems with our paperwork we ended up staying at their hostel for over a week and Alex created a new web site for their business.

Eva and Rick are the lovely people who own Baja Backpackers in La Paz Mexico. Because of the problems with our paperwork we ended up staying at their hostel for over a week and Alex created a new web site for their business. Photo: Alex Washburn

After a week of being in a holding pattern in La Paz, Alex received her documents in the mail via DHL (thank you Val!) and by Wednesday we had everything we needed to board the ferry on Thursday.  We got up early, did a little maintenance on Alex’s bike (which involved taking the gas tank completely off), packed all of the gear (which took longer due to a week of rust) and headed off to Pichilingue to get our importation documents for the motorcycles and board the ferry.

Several hours later, we boarded the ferry without any problems (it’s amazing how fast bureaucracy works when you have all the right paperwork!). Waiting to board the ferry, a fellow motorcyclist pulled up and helped us while away the time with good conversation.  Jim was riding a BMW down from Seattle to his second home in Mazatlan.  He had great stories of family, and his own adventures riding through Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala.

After securing the bikes on the ferry (which consisted of tying them down with rope) we headed to our seats, which were pretty comfortable and proceeded to watch some movies and sleep for the next 16 hours. Untied the bikes, and disembarked in Mazatlan without any instances, though while on board Alex had determined that we were going to have to ride 700 miles in two days to reach her family in Huamantla.

The first day we left Mazatlan at 11am and rode all day aside from a gas stop, and two tip overs, one by me and the other by Alex, into a car (count is 4-2 with two dinged cars), until dusk to reach Guadalajara setting a new one day record of 300 miles. The country between Mazatlan and Guadalajara is some of the best I have seen, and one name I thought of for this post was going to be ‘The Road of Butterflies’ as there were sections of road with hundreds of butterflies on either side (and sometimes in the middle).

We pulled into a nice looking hotel in Guadalajara and intended to check into it until Alex saw a more "cost efficient" business across the street.  The room was about $24 USD but it had hot water and was clean. Photo: Alex Washburn

We pulled into a nice looking hotel in Guadalajara and intended to check into it until Alex saw a more “cost efficient” business across the street. The room was about $24 USD but it had hot water and was clean. Photo: Alex Washburn

Less than 12-hours later it was back on the bikes as ‘Alex the whip’ drove us on to Huamantla. From Guadalajara to Huamantla was going to be over 400 miles, my reaction the night before was:

“I don’t think we can do it, but fuck let’s give it a shot.”

We left just after sunrise and made it to Santiago de Querétaro by 2:30pm with only one stop for gas and food in between. That is when the things got really tough.

What some that haven’t rode a motorcycle or haven’t gone long distances don’t understand is that there is a slow deterioration of the feeling in one’s gluteus maximus as the day goes on. In the morning you’re fine, smelling fresh flowers and grass, listening to the roar of the engine and the wind past your helmet, meditating in your own world as the country passes you by. But as the day goes on you begin to loose feeling in your posterior, the smell of flowers is replaced by truck fumes, and the wind becomes a relentless howling echoed only by the constant drone of the hell-beast that is your horse trampling down any resemblance of a thought in your head.

At 4:00pm we stopped for gas (again), with rain clouds on the horizon of Mexico City D.F. my spirits were low, reflected in the idling of my engine, that had lowered as well, due to the altitude we had climbed that day. Alex insisted we could make it, and I had to channel a new inner level of zen to sally forth past the thoughts of doubt that continued to haunt me during the ride.

Our route from Mazatlan to Huamantla

Our route from Mazatlan to Huamantla

A few minutes later, we were back on the road, that fortuitously turned to the east, bypassing most of the clouds (and rain) and took us on a route to Huamantla skirting Mexico City (which everyone under the sun told us to avoid driving in as it is the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere).

A couple of drops of rain, some heavy wind, and another 100 miles brought us to the doorstep of Alex’s house in Mexico, in a little town named Huamantla that sits in the shadow of a mountain called ‘La Malinche’. A new record setting day of 432 miles came to an end with empty stomachs (and gas tanks) and sore bottoms. It was all made worth it when we were welcomed by family, given a hot meal, and a warm bed to collapse into.

You always reach your destination, even if it wasn’t where you planned.

Coalinga California

Welcome to Coalinga.

Welcome to Coalinga. (Photo: Alex Washburn)

In the last few days leading up to, what in our minds was, the glorious start of Autopista End Nathaniel and I have had some bad luck with our bikes.

It started when he took his bike to a mechanic in Sacramento and had them do a complete overhaul to get it ready for the trip. New air filter, new tires, new chain, they made everything new and shiny and perfect so of course it had to malfunction.

Less then two miles from the mechanic’s at 7:30 at night the bike started sputtering and eventually ceased to be ridable. Good piece of advice, AAA will only tow motorcycles if you have the premium service, so make sure and plan ahead if you have a motorcycle.

Nathaniel took the KLR back to the mechanic the following day and eventually the guy told him a piece of hay had somehow gotten into the intake valve – they removed it, flushed out the system, and it seemed to ride fine.

The day he got his bike “fixed fixed” (Saturday) my chain snapped on the freeway just hours after someone told me it was too loose.

I was told that a chain breaking while you are riding can be really dangerous but thankful nothing happened and a Kawasaki dealership near my house had an extra chain.

We are not mechanics. Before a month ago we had never taken any type of tool to a motorcycle.  However, Sunday we replaced my chain and sprockets in my garage with some tools donated by my wonderful neighbors.

Donnie fixed some of my wires that were severed when my chain snapped... and thankfully babysat us as we spent 6 hours replacing my chain and sprockets.

Donnie fixed some of my wires that were severed when my chain snapped… and thankfully babysat us as we spent 6 hours replacing my chain and sprockets.(Photo: Alex Washburn)

One of them is actually a mechanic by trade and he was awesome babysitting us through the process!

Anyways – these issues kicked our departure date back from the 7th of October to the 8th.

This morning we got on the road around 9:30 and started cruising south on I-5. Our goal was to take a break and get something to eat after hitting 150 miles.

Somewhere around the 60 mile mark Nathaniel’s bike started sputtering again while cruising at 70 mph. After a brief stop to discuss the situation and have our first bike tip-over of the trip (Nathaniel) we decided to try and hit the 150 mile mark and assess our options.

We ended up on a beat up patch of asphalt just off I-5 called Coalinga. After talking on the phone to the mechanic who had worked on Nathaniel’s bike in Sacramento we decided to try a few fixes ourselves.

We spent about an hour and a half next to Denny’s disconnecting the tachometer and playing with a few other things before calling it quits and heading to the nearest Motel 6 (which happened to be just a block away).

By this time the winds had shifted and the smell of cow was strong in the air.

After some fruit loops for dinner (thanks Chevron!) our spirits are a little higher and we have plans to take Nathaniel’s bike to a mechanic first thing in the morning.

“I didn’t know where I thought I would be spending tonight – but I didn’t think it was going to be a Motel 6 in Coalinga.” -Nathaniel

Sorry for the blandness of this post… Hopefully we will be eating fish tacos within 48 hours!  And always remember, even if its not part of the plan, it’s always part of the adventure.