We stayed a total of 10 days in Oaxaca City to transform our bike set-ups and shed weight. We sent home two of our largest panniers, eliminating about 1/3 of our cargo weight in the process. The lighter load would enable us to do more dirt roads and minimize wear and tear on our bikes and it's many moving parts.
Erin took a week of Spanish classes and we spent afternoons exploring Oaxaca's rich culture – from its markets to its museums and lively neighborhoods. We stayed with Norma and her son Gerardo. We all share a passion for delicious, healthy food and spent many hours cooking together and teaching each other Spanish and English during our stay. We left feeling like we became a part of their family and they became a part of ours.
Oaxaca City rests in a river valley 160 miles from the Pacific Coast, surrounded by mountains upon which the impressive ruins of Monte Albán were built (which we blogged about in our last post). As we lightened our bike loads, we began mapping a 160+ mile ride on dirt roads leaving the city, winding our way up into the mountains of Oaxaca and then descending to the coast to Puerto Escondido.
There is a single paved highway connecting Oaxaca City to the coast, and a vast network of dirt roads – a few of which to carry you over the mountains. It was our longest dirt road stretch yet and by far one of the most memorable in our now more than eight months on the road. This post on bikepacking.com is more or less how we based our route. We found it far more difficult in some areas and maybe easier in others as a new autopista is being built connecting the coast to the river valley.
After navigating our way out of Oaxaca City we began our trek on small dirt roads leaving the metropolis, weaving through quaint neighborhoods and following la Ruta Magica de las Artesanías where we visited wood carving and painting studios along the side of the road. This area specialized in wooden animal figurines, usually carved by men in the family, and colorful, detailed painting done by the women.
We camped outside of a cemetery in Asunción de Ocotlán where folks came to talk with us about our travels and assured us their town was safe.
The further outside of Oaxaca we pedaled, the more empty it became. However, we never had to carry more than a few liters of water at a time as tiny towns along the way had tiendas fully stocked with vegetables, fruit, canned goods and bottled water.
Enormous old growth amate trees dotted the landscape in Oaxaca's river valley. The amate tree gave its name to one town, San Agustin Amatengo, where we camped beneath a giant amate tree.
The Amate is a tree that does not bear fruit. Legend has it that within its misshapen branches rests a secret. At noon sharp, a single white flower blooms out of the top of the tree, which then falls to the ground. The person who finds the flower will be given their heart's deepest desires: love, money, health or fame.
They say that in order to obtain the magical powers of this flower you must battle the devil to the death. If the devil wins, your soul is his; if you win, then fortune, fame, love and good health will be eternally yours.
The day we left San Augustin Amatengo was particularly memorable as we began our ascent into the mountains, riding with steep grade roads into the town of San Vicente Coatlán. It was here that we first heard locals speaking their indigenous language.
They were skeptical of outsiders and we were told that there was a land dispute in the town that could erupt into violence. We had a very hard time finding a place to camp as the sun was setting. After asking several families if we could camp in their yard and being turned away, a kind man told us to camp on his friend's farm.
The next day, we linked up with a new autopista that is under construction, connecting the coast to Oaxaca's main river valley. The new autopista cut right through the mountains. It helped us on one hand, but it was hard to see such destruction to such a beautiful, wild and unruly landscape on the other.
That evening, we camped in a river bed among old growth cypress trees outside of San Pablo Coatlán. By that point, we had four solid days of climbing in the saddle and a river could not have sounded any better!
When we finally reached the peak of the mountains after climbing for several days, the cool breeze hit us at the top of the pass in the town of San Sebastián Coatlán at 7,500 ft elevation.
We were hungry when we arrived and were told to visit a woman who would feed us lunch. We noticed she was making tamales though most of them had meat, so she made us some sweet tamales with panela and raisins.
The woman announced over the charming, antiquated town speaker that everyone's tamales were ready to be picked up at around 7pm.
Afterwards, we made chai as we looked out over the mountain range below us. We just cycled that!
This was one of those moments when you've been riding your bicycle for five days straight, on nothing but dirt roads over the mountains in the distance, through the river valley and up the road in the middle, and up to the top of the mountain you're standing on, giving you this view. And you look back at what you did and you're shocked. You can't believe it. You make a new rule: surprise yourself as often as possible. It's good for the soul.
That night we camped at the Presidencia in San Sebastián Coatlán, bundled up in our long layers and sleeping bags, enjoying the best night's sleep we had in weeks.
We then spent the next three days descending from the mountains back to the coast through more quiet dirt roads. After camping on a family's banana finca in Porvenir, we stopped in the town of Tamarindo where a young woman who owned a tienda invited us into her house and fed us an incredible chard soup and sent us on our way with mangos from her tree. It was a steep descent on gravel out of Tamarindo, and we camped that night on the portal of a community kitchen in Comitlan.
From Comitlan we linked up with the dirt autopista until we mostly descended back to the coast. By the time we reached the coast it was nearing 90° by noon.
Our warm showers host Jim in Puerto Escondido was incredible. We also met two young guys cycling south from California who also stayed with Jim while we were there. The week was spent resting up, mending the bikes and gear and exploring beaches and the market. Puerto Escondido is a big, bustling beach town. We visited the Hotel Santa Fe, run by our Santa Fe friend Zoila's father. She treated us to an amazing lunch (thanks Zoila!) and sent us down the road to her friend Gustavo's coffeeshop where we learned about local coffee roasting techniques and flavors.
Our pedal along the Oaxacan coast consisted of undulating hills along gorgeous beaches and cliff sides through Tomatal, bohemian beach town Mazunte, the nude beach at Playa Zipolite, mosquito infested Huatulco – an odd place that was once intended to be a tourist destination like Cancun, but never quite took off.
This stretch was one of the hottest in all of Mexico and Central America. Fortunately the roadsides are dotted with vendors stocked with cold coconuts and atulfo mangos. Ocean breezes are hot.
We came across a road block at a bridge outside of Huatulco near the town of Barra Copalita, where locals had been without a water supply for almost a week. They would not let any trucks or civilians cars pass through the main road that ran through their town, connecting southern coastal Oaxaca and Salina Cruz to the hub of Puerto Escondido.
It was a sight to behold – it was about 4 or 5 miles in both directions of cars and semis parked on the road, many with drivers sleeping in hammocks beneath their truck beds.
Local vendors sold food and refreshments to those who were stuck in the road block. We purchased tamales for 20 cents each. We got to the center of the road block to find more than a hundred people sitting in the road with chairs and big rocks. A few moved their chairs to clear a path for us to pass through.
We camped that night in the town of Morro de Ayuta, in a family's yard, and heard a steady stream of semis passing on the highway shortly after crawling into the tent for the evening. The road block had been lifted and water restored.
The next day after a long, hot ride, we camped at a surf hostel in Concepcion Bamba. This was one of the most picturesque and quiet beaches that we had the pleasure of spending time in Mexico.
There is a large sand dune just up the beach, and crystalline waters with soft, fine white sand. We met a few traveling surfers from Australia and the US.
Our only regret was not staying longer on this beautiful slice of quiet coast. After leaving this gorgeous paradise, we decided to beat the intense heat and took a bus into Chiapas. But we'll save that for the next entry...