Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Oaxaca Journal, Part III: BBB Archive 2/26/06

A Oaxaca Changed, but Mountain Bikeable ©
Feb. 26, 2006—It’s well past the time of my return from Oaxaca, but I have not yet recounted the full cycling events. Now is the moment to do so, before time takes the place of memory, and the events are lost forever, like so many of the moments in our lives that go by unrecorded.
This trip was in part an experiment to see what it would be like to travel to Mexico without my trusty steed “Benepe”, and to rent a mountain bike on location. It is certainly easier to travel without a bike in a box, because unbeknownst to me the first time (when I did bring my bike), Delta Airlines did not charge me for the extra baggage, but the connecting airline in Mexico City, Air Mexico, did--$100. That’s $40 more than the cost of renting a mountain bike for seven days with a discount from Pedro Martinez Bicycle Tours. Although the rental bike had fatter tires and was heavier than I was used to, Alfonso Antonio and Roberto Martinez who work at Martinez’s Tours told me it was more suitable for off-road than something with a narrower tire. Alfonso who also speaks English and has worked in tourism in the U.S. changed the pedals for me so I could use my bike shoes, and tuned the bike up before I took it to the road.
On Tuesday, February 7, I had traveled along the main road heading out of town, the Avenida Heroes de Chapultepec, which becomes la Carretera Internacional, through Santa Maria del Tule, home of the huge tree, then on to San Augustin de las Juntas. (See other maps below). The photo above is looking north to the Sierra mountains from the Carretera Nacional: can you see the rainbow?
Although mostly flat, the main road was uncomfortable with fast-moving cars and especially buses, which are privately owned, and many of the drivers lack any sort of conscience. My attempts in 2004 to persuade the state government to paint bike lanes on the main road to the ancient ruins of Mitla because they were then in the process of re-paving were for naught: they wanted me to pay them to do it, which of course, was an impossibility. That’s another long story.
In truth since the last time I was here, the traffic had gotten much worse; perhaps 15 to 20 percent more motorized vehicles than before, a huge increase. I had my road bike in 2004, and then I would set out in the mornings around 6:30 a.m. and it was easier to get through the morning traffic. In a pinch, I could always rev it up. But now with the wider handlebar profile, and slower responsiveness and diminished speed, it was almost impossible to escape a menacing car. So I needed to find new, safer ways to out of town.
So on Tuesday, after reaching Tule, I went off-road, and discovered miles and miles of labyrinthine byways created by horse and cart traffic along the multiple plots of land being farmed by local farmers. After making it through to Abasolo, the basket-weaving town (about 15 miles from Oaxaca), I turned around and headed back to the center of the city. I saw a cyclist in front of me who led me unwittingly through all the orange-earthed tierra roads, all the way to Tule. And the rest of the story, you already know if you read my blog for February 7th.
But on Wednesday, February 8, I was determined to find my way strictly along back roads to the big climb halfway up to la Cumbre, to El Estudiante, the site of so many early season bike races here in Oaxaca. This is one of the closer, more challenging rides outside of Oaxaca. If you are considering spring training and you need to develop climbing legs, this is the place to train. From Oaxaca Centro to La Cumbre, the top, is about 25 miles, and the majority is climbing. (See photo right for view. That spec way below is Oaxaca.)
So to avoid the main thoroughfare on the way out, instead of riding along the Avenida Heroes de Chapultepec, I meandered slightly northwest of the centro, then rode up into the Colonia Reforma, a much tamer, middle-class version of Oaxaca Centro, to the top of Infonavit, Primero de Mayo, a lower-middle class neighborhood where I lived two years ago in a small, one-family house surrounded by my roses and bugambillas. I rode past the Infonavit daily market where I used to buy bread, milk, meat and vegetables every morning (the meat was for Tiggy, my dog; they thought I was insane.)
At the very top of the city is the beginning of the mountains, so development stops. There you can take a road along the edge, which was unmarked but I believe was Soconusco heading west, to Carretera a San Luis Beltran, which turns into a dirt road (also traveled by city buses) and then diverts west (not traveled by cars at all) across a small dirt path covered in rocks, some garbage, and the occasional very surprised person, until you cross over into another Colonia, called Panteón de Jardín (which actually means Garden Cemetery, but it’s also the name of the town).
In Panteón I headed north again along a barely traveled paved road Avenida Panteón de Jardín, up the back way to San Andres de Huayapam. This is a town I stayed in for about two weeks in 2004, in one of the most beautiful and inexpensive hotels, the San Andres Huayapam Yuu . See the view from the hotel (left).
It was in that hotel that I met my first baby burrito, who used to come knocking on my window at night, scaring the living nightlights out of me. The hotel owners, a husband and wife who are both architects, allowed us to use the kitchen to cook dinner at night, and we had a ball. Their dog, a big, friendly guy, whose name I have forgotten, took a liking to us, and would come stand watch by our doorway: it turns out he was in love with Tiggy. They also gave us a reduced rate for two weeks that came out to about $25 per night. This hotel is ideal if you plan to climb every day by way of la Cumbre, or below to Tule, and don’t mind being far from the city. The views, the air, and the place are akin to paradise. However, unless you have a lot of friends around or have a car, it’s a little isolating.
A word to the wise: watch out for not only the very frequent topes, or road bumps meant for slowing traffic, but also the inverted topes, which are essentially V’s in the road, and can damage your bike or you. There are several of both types in Huayapam. I think the topes have the opposite effect on the very impulsive Mexican drivers who, after being inconveniently slowed down by a tope, put their foot on the gas with a vengeance.
From Huayapam, I scooted south again, and turned at the “Y” to head back up the mountain on the rumbo a Ixtepeji. Thus started about 10 additional miles of climbing in brutal heat. In the past, there had been a minor shoulder on much of this narrow road, traveled by taxis, buses, huge trucks loaded with rocks and cut trees, but now, recent “improvements” had taken any shoulder away, and in its place was a sharp cut-off about 20 to 30 feet down. Not very encouraging, but I shouldered on to El Estudiante, where I stopped for water and Gatorade at the only store in the small town of about 50 people. There I had an interesting conversation with three men who had stopped for potato chips and orange soda after picking up a huge piece of steel that had fallen off one of their trucks as it made its way down the vertiginous mountain road. They thought that I thought they were stealing it, but I really just wanted to know what they were going to do with the steel.
I recognized the young girl behind the counter, Nora Yovanna Garcia Garcia, though she had grown about a foot taller since the last time I saw her. Here is a picture of her taken in 2004.
You can write to her at El Estudiante, Calle Fresno, No. 1, Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico. I bet she’d get a kick out of it.
By the way, I make it sound so easy, going up to Estudiante, but basically I was cursing the whole way partly because I did not have enough food or drink with me. Lucky for me that el abarrote Estudiante and Nora Yvonna were there. Above and here are some photos of the view should you make it past El Estudiante, and up to La Cumbre (good luck, it’s about another 15 miles straight up, and not even Mexican cyclists can usually make it, though I’ve made it three quarters of the way before.) By the way, if you continue north on this road by car, after about seven hours of nauseating twists and turns you’ll end up in Mexico City by way of Tuxtepec. I wouldn’t advise it.
By the way, there are signs that read "Curva Peligrosa" all over this road. That means "Dangerous Curve". But since I am part Polish, I know that "curva" means prositute. So in effect there were dangerous prostitutes with curves all over this road.
The descent on pavement is really more suitable for a road bike, and with cars, trucks and buses passing me as I descended, I really did not enjoy it on a slow mountain bike. However, it was my first real good day of training, and well worth it. Next journal entry: Using all back routes to get to Teotitlan del Valle, the rug-weaving town west of Oaxaca. At least, that was the intent.

ONLINE MAPS (Most of them are bad and some are even wrong and misleading. You need to buy the Guia Roja if you travel to Oaxaca)
Spanish Abroad
Google Satellite map of Oaxaca—cool! But useless.

Travel Guide:
Languages of Oaxaca
Other Oaxaca Info
House Swapping in Oaxaca

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