Cycling | 6 comments
Top rides – Mexico
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Reflections on my bike riding in Mexico
Living in Canada means no road biking for at least six months during the winter. When February arrived I couldn’t wait any longer to escape the Canadian cold and become a snowbird… again! So, it was time to get off of the rollers and treadmill in my basement and do some road biking in the small-town of Huatulco, one of my favorite holiday escape destinations in Mexico.
Biking in Huatulco
Canadian winters are tough and February was time for us Canadians to flock south as old man winter tightens its grip on Edmonton. Winters in Edmonton can be long, hard and extremely frigid. Escaping our reality, even for a week or two, really helps to make the unforgiving wintry season more bearable. The longer we stay away, the better. It’s no wonder why every year many snowbirds, especially – cyclists, fly south to Mexico. It’s warm, it’s dry and it has some great roads for cycling. My objective for this winter escape was relaxation, with a little bit of biking (true to be told, I was biking every day!) and adventure mixed in. I am not the tourist who is lying down on the beach all day with cold margarita in hand. I like to be different and explore my surroundings… see things. I came here on a mission, to explore local roads on the bike!
That’s why I packed my old ‘Marinoni’ road bike into a ‘Polaris’ cargo bike bag and checked in myself aboard ‘Air Transat’ direct flight south to Huatulco. It took only 6 hours before we landed in the warm climate, far away from Canadian winter. It seemed like landing on another planet.
I wanted to ride my bike on the roads around Huatulco, because I remember them from my previous visit. These roads have many varied challenges and there are many choices to ride a bicycle. I could go west or east on a coastal highway 200, or visit nearby villages like Santa Maria Huatulco, Pochutla or Puerto Angel. If I didn’t feel like having a long ride on a highway, I could stay in the ‘zona hoteliera’ (hotel zone) and just ride my bike between big touristy resorts in La Crucecita, Santa Cruz and Tangolunda. There is a ‘Copalita’ loop of 31 kilometers on a hilly road, that follows ocean shore and at the end connects to a highway 200, at the small village ‘Barra de Copalita’ (hence the name ‘Copalita loop’). From there I could return to La Crucecita on a highway, or turn around and use the same road in the opposite direction. Getting off the beaten track and checking the outskirts of town is always a pleasant treat for me!! It doesn’t matter how fast I ride, but every turn of the pedals matters to me!
Where is Huatulco
I have been in Mexico many times and have seen many places, but Huatulco is something special. I can see myself spending my retirement days there. Unlike the other Riviera on Mexico’s Caribbean side, or its resort cousins to the north on Pacific side — Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Ixtapa — Huatulco has carved out a refreshingly vibrant yet laid-back personality. This beautiful Mexican community is situated near the small quaint town of La Crucecita in the deep south of Mexico. Huatulco can be found in the state of Oaxaca in an area where the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, approximately 500 km south of Acapulco. Population tops out at around 50,000. The three main towns around the Bays of Huatulco are Crucecita, Santa Cruz and Tangolunda. Things to note about Huatulco: safe to walk the streets at night, taxis are cheap, lots of Mexican families on the weekends especially, prices are reasonably good, beaches are beautiful and clean, not a big night life scene, locals are friendly, not much English spoken.
This increasingly popular resort area on the pacific Mexican Riviera practically guarantees hot, dry weather for sun-seekers 340 days a year, with an average yearly temperature of 28 Degrees Celsius. The area is blessed with nine lovely bays and numerous small coves stretching for about 26 kilometers of rugged coastline. Bahia Tangolunda boasts the biggest all-inclusive resorts such as Barcelo, Secrets, Las Brisas (the former Club Med) and Dreams Resort & Spa among others. Though on this vacation, our home away from home, for three glorious weeks, was a small three star hotel ‘Princess Mayev’ in Chahue bay area.
With pleasant temperatures hovering around +25 degrees every morning I would start from my hotel in Chahue bay. The road from hotel starts with a 300m descent towards seaside Santa Cruz Boulevard that leads north to town of La Crucecita and Tangolunda bay on the east. The traffic circle in Chahue is the beginning of a very nice pedestrian walkway in the center of the road that leisure cyclists can use and will take them safely, pretty much into La Crucecita.
Usually at the traffic circle at bottom of the hill I would make a right turn and head east towards Arrocito, Tangolunda and Bocana bays. I would continue straight up the road, where it connects to a major Coastal Highway 200, at the small village Barra de Copalita.
With the light tailwind on this section I was rolling along the boulevard with ease. Huatulco has nine bays and to go from one bay to another I always had a climb before getting on the other side into different bay. I was riding by restaurants serving Oaxaca’s traditional dishes, small boutique hotels and a market selling clothing, beach items and handcrafts. In Tangolunda bay I rode by several big, well known all-inclusive resorts (Barcelo, Quinta Real, Dreams). There was a sidewalk along this road all the way to Bocana beach and many tourists were jogging or just walking it. The sidewalks were in very good condition, nice and wide and often well treed. Some recreational cyclists ride on the sidewalk, but I am usually going too fast to ride anywhere but on the main road. There are lots of ups and downs between all the bays… a great way to burn off the calories!!
What amazed me the most on this section is how well maintained this road is. Massive viaducts await the rainy season’s effluence. Impressive infrastructure is evident everywhere, limiting any sense of quaintness or wildness, but providing easy-driving roads and clean water.Every day, during my ride I would see literally hundreds of workers trimming the plants and bushes on the endless medians, watering the grass, painting the curbs white, picking up the leaves and doing some other repair jobs and cleaning… the whole stretch between Santa Cruz and Copalita (15 km) is garbage free! Hat down to Fonatur employees!
I cruised along the boulevard and only heard the sound of my tires and singing birds from the trees hanging over the road. The only cars on this road were (mostly) yellow Nissan Sentra taxis, transporting tourists to their hotels. I wanted to keep the pace down for the first 20 minutes, so shifted down through the gears and kept my cadence up. This was a perfect warm-up for the rest of my ride. Last resort on this road was ‘Secrets’, just before Bocana beach. After that the road turned away from the coast and it was flat for the last 4 kilometers, before reaching Copalita village.
At the intersection with Highway 200 I made a left turn (west) and head back towards Crucecita and Huatulco airport. This section of the road was into a headwind and I knew that I had to push the pedals very hard. This was a serious headwind to contend with, so when a youngster came from behind, moving past me on a scooter with his girlfriend on the back, I jumped into his slipstream. The pace and the slightly uphill road nearly killed my legs. It was almost like back in Croatia training in the old days, shredding myself after five hours of riding with my team buddies on the roads around Zagreb. But scooters these days are much faster than back in the 70s… or maybe I’m just getting too old. I managed to hang on for several kilometers though, which pushed me harder than at any point during this winter. But when the moped’s indicators flashed to turn right I was relieved that I could finally ease up.
At the Tangolunda exit new highway begins with wide shoulders and smooth new pavement. They completed this stretch of highway all the way to Huatulco airport. Few kilometers further on the highway I made a left turn to take Crucecita exit and return to my starting point in Chahue bay. By the time I reached this exit for Crucecita, the wind picked up again, so I got down on the drops for a while in an attempt to make myself as aerodynamic as possible. From Crucecita town to Chahue bay is only about 1 km. This full loop was 31km long, so I was able to repeat this at least two times on hot and humid days in February. There was very little traffic on these roads and the pavement was smooth.
I would increase my average speed with each covered lap, until my lungs and legs started to scream. I tried to carry this momentum for as long as possible really enjoying the speed and the route. Because I was in pretty decent shape for the month of February I was able to last two laps (easy) and once I even did three laps for the total of 93 km distance.
Santa Cruz and the beaches
From Chahue bay the boulevard also goes West over the short hill into Santa Cruz and continues for another 4 kilometers all the way to Maguey beach. The new wide sidewalk goes all the way to Santa Cruz and beyond… to La Entrega and La Maguey beaches.
Just west of Santa Cruz the road winds up to a steep hilltop and then descends towards the Maguey beach. Before you crest the top of the hill, you can take a road on your left, which will take you over another steep climb, to the beautiful La Entrega beach on the other side of the hill. But, if you continue straight after about 3 kilometers you’ll see a wide parking area, and that’s the end of this road. To get to the Maguey beach you have to carry your bike down the stairs and you’ll end up walking on the soft and warm send… there are several restaurants where you can have cold serveza, or a very tasty seafood meal.
The Entrega beach is a beautiful beach that is easy to get to from Santa Cruz. The road to Entrega beach goes over a short nasty climb. Once you exit Santa Cruz take the first road on your left. The road climbs for about two kilometers. If you look on your left, down towards the Santa Cruz, there is an army base with several buildings, but all you’ll see from the road is a soldier on guard duty. At the top of the climb on your left is nice lookout point, where you can stop and take pictures of the Santa Cruz bay down below. This is very good spot especially if a Cruise Ship is docked in Santa Cruz. If you continue on the same road, you have a steep descent in front of you all the way to the Entrega beach. There are palapa style restaurants on the beach where you can stop and enjoy a cold drink and something to eat. On the way back you’ll have to overcome a long and steep climb… that’s the reason I visited Entrega beach only once! They completed a new road that goes around the mountain, but it was closed at the time when I was there, because construction workers were still doing some finishing touches on the side of the road.
Visiting Santa Maria Huatulco
Couple of times I drove my car rental to Huatulco international airport, which was only 10-15 minutes away from Crucecita (15 km). I would leave the car at the gas station and pool out my bike. When heading out by myself on an unknown road like this, there’s time to enjoy the road and scenery. From the airport it was only 10 km on a narrow windy road before I reached Santa Maria Huatulco, small village in the Sierra Madre Mountains. A short bike ride like this will send you straight forward to the real Mexican countryside.
This small town offers a tranquil step-back to another time, with a different rhythm, where men and women seem to move slowly along the streets. As I was entering this town, I noticed on the right side of the road someone’s parked jet!! Very unusual… first thought through my mind was: Is this some kind of a drug lord!? But I’ll never know…
As many other towns in Mexico, this is a picture-perfect Mexican town with its old church on the main square steeple stabbing the sky. There are adobe clay houses, palm-fronded roofs, and bougainvillea branches decorating the old walls of antique buildings. When I was roaming the streets on my bike, people were looking at me with a great interest, almost like they’ve never seen a man dressed in lycra on the bicycle. I also saw a ‘biketaxi’ – very old fashioned man powered taxi.
San Pedro Pochutla by bike
From the Huatulco airport to Pochutla on the old section of highway 200 is about 25 kilometers. Past airport, this section is the old roadway heading west from the airport towards Pochutla, Puerto Angel and further north to Puerto Escondido and Acapulco. This was a winding narrow road, a little bumpy at times, through the Sierra Madre foothills.
There was very little construction to report on this section, as I was enjoying some serious curves and hilly winding road. The road has been maintained well and one of the bridges has recently been resurfaced. It looks like this leg will be the last one to be worked on and completed. There are several topes (speed bumps), people and animals on this road, but nothing that would interfere with my bike riding. I actually liked this section of the road better than newly build highway.
As I entered Pochutla, there was a military check point with soldiers on both side of the road. Little scary, but they didn’t even turn their heads on me. I went straight thru and shortly after I did a right turn into the town. This typical Mexican town is located at the junction of coastal highway 200 and highway 175 to Oaxaca. It is a bustling regional business center and is not tourist-oriented. Highway 175 winds through the center of town and I had to ride very slow due to pedestrians crossing the road hectic traffic and several street lights.
Pochutla or rather the full name San Pedro Pochutla is a small city and Oaxacan municipality, that is part of the south Oaxacan state in Mexico and it is very close to the Pacific Ocean and beautiful small communities of Zipolite, Mazunte, Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. The place has become a very useful place to catch buses to outer cities or to Oaxaca. People from all over come here so they can then go on to the coast or to the mountains. As I was riding my bike through the town’s main street I couldn’t tell if there was an event going on, or if it was just regular busy day in Pochutla, but it seemed like they were celebrating something. The streets were full of loud people and busy traffic. The policeman prevented me of riding my bike on the main square. The town also has a beautiful white cathedral and a park nearby to relax, just like every other town I’ve been in Mexico.
I barely made it through the town, as people screamed at me when they saw me. A smiling man walked alongside and shouted to me, ‘Pochutla! Bienvenidos a Pochutla!’ I smiled back while at the same time pushing on my pedals to leave this madness behind me.
San Pedro Pochutla is much bigger town than Santa Maria Huatulco. Rolling through this town I passed by many street vendors and the smell of food was all around me. The city has great street food and prices for food are much cheaper than in touristy Huatulco. They have good tacos and enchiladas in this town and they also have good fruit waters known as ‘aguas.’ Locals come here to stack up on food or grocery shopping. Some residents operate stores from their front yards, where they may also sell papaya and watermelon or penny candy. School-aged children, dressed in uniforms of crisp white shirts and skirts for girls and pants for boys, walk to and from school along the dusty roads, or stand in the back of open truck beds. Roosters, pigs and bony cows share the same roads with local farmers bringing their fruits and vegetables on the backs of donkeys to the market in this town. It’s especially busy on Mondays, market day.
It took me more than 20 minutes to pass through the town. The town has a bypass road that connects highway 200 with highway 175 and winds over the hills outside of the town. I went far north from the town until I reached last houses by the road, to make sure I was outside of the town. Here the road already began to climb into the Sierra Madre mountains. I turned around here as this time I was not ready to climb this long uphill stretch of the highway inland, towards Oaxaca City. Instead I returned and went straight through the town again, until I arrived at the junction with highway 200.
Once I left the town behind there is a junction, where a right turn takes one North towards Puerto Escondido, and left turn leads South to Huatulco. I could also continue straight and this leads to a winding road to the coastal town of Puerto Angel (10 km away).
The bike ride along the coast from Pochutla to Huatulco airport is scenic but uneventful, taking me little over an hour. The distance between these two places is 25 km. The whole section of the highway is on the old two-lane Coastal Highway 200. If you continue from the airport towards Crucecita you get on a new two lane highway with wide shoulders that was just completed last year. The coastal range of the Sierra Madres was on the left, with the ocean out of sight on my right side for this ride. Traffic was no issue on this road, although it increased on the last section between the airport and Crucecita. With all the momentum I could muster, I sprinted down the rolling hills, knowing that the incline on the other side was neither steep nor long enough to slow me down.
My lasting impression of this course was that for anyone in the world, whether they’re a professional racer, weekend warrior like me or even leisure cyclist, they’d be hard pressed to find a better bike route than this one. The scenery, the climate, the roads, the cerveza… oh, I love Mexico!!
Reflections on my cycling in Mexico
After several previous trips to Mexico already under my belt and bringing my bike along on this trip to Huatulco, I would like to reflect on the rich and colorful experience of cycling through Mexico.
In short, I always had a great time. I had no negative experiences yet… knock, knock on the wood. I am glad I did not pay attention to the warnings I was given (mostly at home in Edmonton) not to go. For every time someone told me it was too dangerous to travel in Mexico, I have countless examples to the contrary. I received kindness, generosity and found friendship pretty much everywhere I went. Most people I met were thoroughly concerned that I was having a good time in their country. I told everyone, that common sense must prevail at all times in Mexico… or any other country. It’s all the same… everywhere.
My negative experiences in Mexico were limited to the following: cow-herd crossing the road in front of me forcing me to stop; being slightly ripped off (I suspect I was charged the ‘gringo tax’ more than once); and some angry honking on the roads. Pretty good going, for such a dangerous country. But I get all this in Canada too.
Not that I want to downplay too much the obvious fact that Mexico has its problems. It is a country of extremes – much more starkly than in Europe. First there is the geography: crazy high mountains, reaching up to 5 km into the sky and pancake flat plains; humid jungle and arid desert; 10,000 km of beaches and thick pine forests. Pristine and beautiful national parks, but a devastating amount of trash dumped on the roadsides. The climate ranges from the temperate to the tropical, with everything in between. But it is always warm and sunny, and basically that’s what I am looking for when I’m there!
There is extreme poverty on one side, with obscene wealth on the other. Grand colonial cities and dusty pueblos. Bustling, colorful markets with every imaginable fruit, vegetable and cut of meat (full on sensory overload) and tiny grocery shops with no fresh produce, only dusty cans and packets of ancient crisps. There are ancient cities and ultra-modern, cavernous malls. If you dislike these things, I guess my advice is don’t go there, but for me… I love it!! It reminds me on my native country – Croatia. There is many similarities between these two countries!
There is extreme violence (mostly related to the drug cartels) and extreme kindness. I always find much similarities comparing Mexican people to Croatian people (I am Croatian living in Canada). Corruption that reaches into all aspects of society, but also a huge sense of trust between friends and also total strangers, as my wife and I constantly experienced on our travels. We learned to expect the unexpected in Mexico. After all it is a vast country of 125 million people, speaking 50 different languages. If I took everything the media said about Mexico at face value, if that was my only source, I would have some pretty screwed up preconceptions too. I would be totally wide of the mark. The screaming, hysterical Canadian news presents a Mexico that is unrecognizable to me, and to most tourists that visit – I’m willing to bet on that.
Mexico has in general very good roads, but they are different then roads in Canada. The lanes are narrow like in Europe. The curves are blind. And you may suddenly encounter peasants, burros or chickens in the middle of the road. Pot holes may be chasms, and the spring-breaking speed bumps (tope) may seem like they are a foot tall even on the bike. The roads are often undercut, with no shoulders, and visibility after dusk is minimal. I compare these roads to European roads back in the sixties, before they built modern four-lane highways everywhere.
If you are a biker like me, you’ll prefer to stay on smaller side-roads and not use the toll highways. On these ‘Mexican-style’ free highways, be prepared to deal with two lane roads with huge trucks bearing down at you head on. Driving style in Mexico is also much different. They drive fast and don’t respect rules. But in a weird sense of respect I trust them more than Canadian drivers!
In Oaxaca province I traveled on my bike through narrow two lane highways, tiny towns, highways full of massive speed bumps that seem to come out of nowhere, villages with cobblestone paved roads, through town squares, residential neighborhoods, and then through a long section of two-lane aggravation that snakes endlessly through a dense forest before descending on the land eternal of spring, the city of Pochutla. Miles upon miles of palm trees line the land just inside the coastal shores. Jungle covered mountains plunge into the Pacific coast, or fall short to reveal golden sand beaches, begging to be discovered and walked upon by tired feet.
If you are the adventurous guy like me and decide to try these routes, you’ll come away feeling like you’ve gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel and lived to tell about it.
At the end of this adventure in Mexico I often wonder whether the thrill cycling offers will ever leave me. Most likely it won’t. Anybody who rides knows the feeling – that sense of exhilaration and inner peace. A bicycle lets you know you’re alive. You feel a mountain grade like few others. Hills and valleys etch their memories into your thighs. Your lungs heave at a 10 percent grade, but delight in a downhill rolling free gravity ride. Your skin recognizes coolness in the early morning while it glistens with sweat in the afternoon when the temperatures climb into the 30s (Celsius).
On a bicycle, every kilometer means something to your emotions, heart, muscles and head. Describing what I call ‘pedaling bliss’ may be challenging: I flow with life rhythms in a fluid coalescence body, mind and spirit. The bicycle engages my energy forward toward exploration, expression and physical delight. When I pedal into the inner kingdom of Mother Nature such as a mountain river flowing out of a snowfield, a certain glee invades every cell in my body. When I reach the crest of a mountain pass, my muscles relax, then release when gravity becomes my motor. At that point, I feel a wondrous sense of flight.
I’ve seen Mexico from totally different angle than many other tourists in their all-inclusive resorts. When I get up in the morning, there is always a smile on my face and I’m not sure a lot of people, who do not ride bicycles can say that. For fans of the Oilers and Canucks, the only ice they will find here is in the bottom of the glass at this winter getaway where there is sunshine at least 340 days a year and where the average daily temperature is 28 C. On our last full day at the hotel ‘Princess Mayev’, the mercury hit 38 degrees Celsius during the middle of the day, when most sensible people would choose the shade. And yet the hard-core sun-worshippers like me where still out there on the bike, rolling over the hills and soaking up the rays. ‘Kids, send me some money, I don’t want to go home!’… but I received no response, so here I am in cold Edmonton writing this blog and dreaming about Huatulco.
Thanks for bearing with me and reading this long report on the wonders of Mexico.
Have a good and healthy season.
Follow Zdenko’s Corner on Facebook !