Whilst I’d enjoyed beach life and the navigational simplicity of riding alongside a large ocean, I was definitely ready to break off my relationship with the Pacific. We’d been through a lot together since those new and exciting first days up in Oregon, but deep down I knew we needed some time apart. So, when I reached Mexico’s southern most state of Chiapas and made an abrupt turn inland, I don’t think it came as a complete surprise.
The previous couple of days riding had been especially tough, with ‘rather blustery’ being a fitting description (in the understated tone of an early explorer). Unbeknown to me this stretch was famous for very strong cross winds, made somewhat obvious by the plethora of wind farms, and it appeared I’d caught it at a bad time. On a number of occasions I was literally blown off the road into a ditch and the times when I was actually on the bike were painfully slow; focusing on ’holding her steady’ in that sweet spot between oncoming traffic and the ditch. All good practice for Patagonia though…
The highlands of Chiapas had always been the part of Mexico I was most interested in exploring, with a largely indigenous population continuing life in relative isolation from the rest of Mexico (where Indians have mostly been absorbed into the mixed race melting pot). Leaving the coast and climbing higher and higher into the mountains was literally a breath of fresh air; temperatures dropped considerably and tropical jungle gave way to countryside strangely reminiscent of home.
At first glance Chiapas appears a picture postcard paradise, but this is Mexico’s poorest state and beneath the stunning backdrops belie some deep-rooted social and political issues. It wasn’t long before I came across one of the frequent anti-government protests, where I was ushered into the crowd and tried my best to make sense of their stories. Amongst the usual problems of corruption, the issue responsible for the media spotlight being swung on Chiapas in recent years is that of indigenous rights, and more specifically the plight of the Zapatista Movement.
It all comes back to the age-old issue of exploitation of indigenous populations; that uncomfortable relic of colonialism experienced in one form or another practically the world over. Unlike Mexico’s neighbours to the north however, the ‘guilt trip’ has yet to kick in and the government’s stance remains relatively uncompromising. This boiled over into the indigenous uprising of the mid-nineties, spearheaded by a group calling themselves ‘Zapatistas’, and who, against all odds, took control of land and a number of major towns (albeit only for a day). It’s a fascinating story of a true underdog rebellion and despite ultimately being no match for the army, succeeded in bringing international attention to their cause (in essence the right to own and farm their own land, and live in autonomy from modern Mexico). Whilst the Zapatistas have since resorted to peaceful dialogue, with some success, the imagery of masked revolutionaries wielding machine guns is still synonymous with the area and is proudly depicted on murals in many of the villages (perhaps controversially often on the walls of school buildings). Without wanting to sound like a raving anarchist, it’s quite inspiring stuff; families living in relative poverty but proud, and determined not give up their struggle.
Keen to explore this relatively unseen and unique part of Mexico, I’d drawn up a somewhat ambitious route comprising of small back roads where possible, in an effort to break free from the ‘beaten path’. It all looked great on paper, but as I soon came to discover I’d unwittingly signed myself up for an absolute suffer-fest of relentlessly steep dirt tracks. Most of the time was spent flailing about the handlebars on the verge of a cardiac arrest, desperately trying to maintain some form of forward momentum. To add insult to injury, any remaining illusions of cycling prowess were crushed by the succession of women casually overtaking me whilst carrying huge piles of sticks on their backs!
I imagine all the villagers had the same question on their mind as they starred at me in apparent disbelief; “What on earth is this joker up to?”. If I’m honest I was asking myself the same thing half the time and was very tempted to accept the offer of a lift from a passing pickup truck. I’d recently come across the expression of ‘Riding EFI’ (Every F***ing Inch) and whilst this isn’t something I’m obsessed with achieving (having already taken two ferries), there’s nothing I hate more than admitting defeat. I suppose my mantra is more like ‘FWFS’ (Finishing What I F***ing Start), and ultimately it’s this blind stubbornness that led to me actually arriving in Alaska, fresh faced and quietly petrified.
In each tiny village everything stopped as the ‘gringo show’ wobbled through, with all eyes of the traditionally dressed locals fixed intently on me. This was clearly quite an unusual occurrence, and it often seemed like they weren’t sure what to make of me; kids ran away and hid, and my polite smiles invariably weren’t reciprocated. This was quite a contrast to usual, where I’m forever waving back at everyone like some sort of dignitary on procession, or fending off ‘sprint challenges’ from eager teenagers on battered bikes. Furthermore, things weren’t helped by the fact that often people spoke very little Spanish (with local dialects used instead).
That being said, all encounters were very friendly, but unlike previous exploits I can’t say I managed to engage with these communities in any meaningful way. Instead I felt very much like the outsider looking in, a fascinating experience in itself; watching traditional rural life playing out in front of me, but those pangs of loneliness were starting to creep back. The social backpacker hub of San Cristobal de Las Casas where I’d been indulging in Mojito fuelled nights out with ‘my own kind’ only a couple of days earlier, seemed an absolute world away now.
Eventually leaving the Chiapas highlands I descended the other side back into sweaty jungle and towards the magnificent Mayan ruins of Palenque. Following my welcome return to tarmac the riding was fairly uneventful, except for the occasional dog venting his anger and prompting me to use my ’bear spray’ for the first time. Before I get a flood of animal rights related hate mail though, I’d just like to point out that I largely succeeded in simply dousing my own knee, leaving it stinging like hell for the rest of the day. I instantly felt deep sympathy for the poor chap I was told about at a ‘bear safety’ talk in Alaska, who somehow managed to cover his balls in the stuff…!
With my war torn tent now barely able to stand up in anything more than a mild breeze, I’ve been seeking out alternative accommodation where possible, generally in the form of cheap hotels. I don’t want to want to give any illusions of grandeur here though and use term ‘hotel’ quite loosely, with some of these establishments bearing a distinct resemblance to prisons, only less luxurious. The jewel in the crown of rooms stayed in has to be the completely empty seven-foot square concrete box, without so much as a light switch, let alone a bed. If self imposed solitary confinement is your thing then this is probably right up your street, but I can’t see it faring too well on ‘Tripadvisor’!
After ‘ticking off’ Palenque in true tourist fashion, time constraints meant that I then deviated from my original plan. As opposed to continuing northeast to the far tip of Mexico, I felt the pressure to make some progress in the right direction and so instead headed to Guatemala. I was sad to leave Mexico prematurely and it seemed the border officials shared my sentiments, making my departure less than easy. Having opted for a little used border crossing in the middle of nowhere, the officials were insisting that, before I could leave, I would have to pay again for my tourist visa because I didn’t have the original receipt of purchase.
This was all quite bizarre, but frustratingly my protests fell on deaf ears. We’re only talking the equivalent of £15 here, but in the mind of a continental cyclist that’s sixty tacos – certainly not something to be sniffed at! In any case it was the principal of it. So in a possibly foolish act of defiance, I left their little office on the pretense of looking for a moneychanger, rejoined the road and promptly cycled straight into Guatemala. The smiley officials on this side, busily lounging outside their small portacabin, were only too happy to me stamp in and before I knew it I was on my way! The perfect crime, except for one potential hiccup: having effectively just left Mexico illegally, I’m due to return to the country shortly in order to catch a flight to Cuba…
Having only been in Guatemala for a handful of days I’ll refrain from making my usual sweeping generalisations at this stage, but first impressions have been very positive (read as “it’s very cheap!”). Further exploration will have to wait for time being though, as ‘The Ride South’ is about to take a cheeky one-month interlude in Cuba (assuming the Mexicans let me back in for my flight). The plan is to don a backpack and travel round the island with a friend from home and later with my parents, before returning to reunite with the bike and continue where I left off. In all honesty I’m desperately looking forward to some time out of the saddle and equally the chance to explore what promises to be another cracker of a country. Cuba certainly knows all about a good revolution and, perhaps of more immediate relevance, how to knock up a good cigar and Mojito…