Cycling, Travel | 2 comments
Top rides – Mexico
By: Zdenko Kahlina
The Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains by bike!
This winter I Climbed the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains in Mexico on my bike! It was 20 (!) kilometers all uphill! That day, that ride… that weather… it was all unforgettable! But if someone asks me to do it again I would do it in a flush!!
Here is my story:
The climate in Huatulco (Oaxaca, Mexico) is warm and dry and the area has some great roads for cycling. That’s the reason I went there in February with the idea to explore local roads and climb some great mountains on my bike. The Sierra Mountains were not very far from the small town of Santa Cruz and our hotel by the beach.
So, after several days biking around coastal area in Huatulco, one morning I decided to make a short trip to the big mountains with my bike. I went from our hotel in Santa Cruz west on Highway 200 to Huatulco airport (16 km distance).
Santa Cruz to Huatulco airport
Goodbye old narrow and twisty road between Huatulco and the International Airport. It’s history now. They built new two lane highway with wide shoulders that are used (by Mexicans) as additional passing lanes on this section. The new highway is fully completed and I had no problem riding my bike on this section, except being bored. They used the cut outs from the old sections of the highway and connected them together by blasting new routes through the mountains resulting in a straighter and wider roadway. But this new highway ends at the airport.
I continued straight pass the airport exit and about 1 kilometer after I made a right turn onto a local freshly paved road and headed inland towards Santa Maria Huatulco (9 km distance), passing through small mountain villages. Santa Maria Huatulco is a 16th-century town with cobblestone streets and an ancient church. But I didn’t stop there. Instead I made a 90° left turn, just before the main road splits off into a ‘V’ in town. After few more turns through this small town I was on an dusty road, with several ‘topes’ to cross. But the road was clearly marked, towards Oaxaca City (366 km) and Pluma Hidalgo (26 km). I stayed on the pavement and followed the road out of town.
Shortly after Santa Maria I crossed an interesting one-lane bridge over the Rio Huatulco, which becomes the Rio Coyula, as it flows down to the ocean. I was originally planning to go from here all the way to Pochutla, but I discovered here on the spot, that road connecting Santa Maria Huatulco with Pochutla is a white gravel road. With my road bike and its thin clincher tires I don’t go on gravel roads. It would be too risky to get a flat tire. Instead I continued straight, heading into the Sierra Madre Mountains. The road sign said it was 26 km before I would reach Pluma Hidalgo. I knew I was in the mountains, but I never knew this would be all uphill.
Few kilometers above Santa Maria on the road to Pluma Hidalgo is a tributary called the Rio Grande. There are some access points and this river would be quite exciting creek boat kayaking when the water is up. Within minutes of leaving Santa Maria Huatulco, the road began to head up into the mountains. In addition, the scenery was spectacular as I climbed the highway toward Pluma and was lush even in dry season. The picturesque mountain community of Pluma Hidalgo is the most easily accessible place from Huatulco to experience a dramatic change in climate, sitting at elevation of 1,300m, with some amazing views.
Conquering Sierra Madre Del Sur Mountains
So, I was exploring the mountains on my bike and the road kept going up and up. Endlessly! The road was twisted with lots of hairpins. It ramped up to an unexpected 12 per cent gradient straight from the bottom, immediately placing a tough load on my legs. I was excited to hit the hills, as I wanted to prove to myself that my legs, cardio and mental are still there even at this age. When the road rises, getting out of the saddle accelerates the bike. I was constantly switching my pedaling technique. Short periods of standing on the pedals and longer periods sitting in the saddle.
The steep slope hurt my legs and my lungs… it was hot… I sweat a lot. Luckily, I had two bottles of water with me and I would empty them both before reaching the top. The scenery was quite a sight and I actually enjoyed beautiful mountainous terrain. This winding mountain road, provide stunning views but have hairpin turns, steep drop offs — sometimes on both sides of the narrow strip of pavement — and this road is also prone to small (unmarked) landslides. I stopped at one point to take few pictures of particularly big and dangerous landslide. I mean, the road almost disappeared down the hill. It amused me that they didn’t cut off the traffic here, because this one was really dangerous. I can’t imagine driving on this road after dark…
As I climbed to higher elevations, I watched coffee trees growing on the shady hillsides flanking the road. I understand that because of the steep terrain, planting and harvesting are still done by hand. The coffee plants thrive on this hilly terrain, although they’re not indigenous to Mexico. More than three meters of water is needed each year to keep the plants alive; that comes in the rainy season from July to October. As the hills turn a rusty shade of brown in the dry season, the beans are ripe for picking. As I climbed the narrow road up the side of the mountain I passed an elderly man, carrying a 25-kilogram sack of coffee beans on his back. That bag of beans will earn him 250 pesos ($26 Cdn) at the market in Pochutla. He’s one of many workers who make living plucking beans in the mountains for three months of the year.
Clouds and rain in the magnificent mountains
I left Santa Maria under the sun but as I was attacking the steep mountain switchbacks I was quickly entering into the mist… but oh, the vistas I could see! Around me were pine trees, big mountains and tiny villages lost in the clouds. It was breathtaking, magic…
With every meter gained I could feel the air thinning along with the changing colors of the landscape. I was climbing alone, so I didn’t push really hard, just trying to keep a steady pace. This road was an unforgiving, unrelenting, twisting and turning, and constantly going up and up.
The road was well maintained and very smooth. Traffic was nonexistent and only few cars passed by me. Their exhaust fumes were really bad and were affecting my breathing for a few long seconds, until the poisoning gases cleared. The road was going up all the time at an average gradient of 7-8% gradient for many kilometers (nobody was counting!). I passed through small picturesque mountain hamlets and small homes along this tiring and invigorating mountain road…
This was not a ‘big ring’ climb. I’ve chosen the right gears on my bike, including the Shimano Ultegra compact chainring and was climbing at steady pace. I had to work and be vigilant at every moment, especially since the rain began falling. I was already very high in the mountains. The fatigue didn’t help either and the mental is not very high as I had the feeling I’ll never reach the top. There were moments during my ride, when I was thinking of giving up and turning around. But I didn’t. There was something within me that didn’t want to give up. I wanted to reach the top. I wanted to see this village high in the mountains.
In the final two or three kilometers of climbing the going got really tough. But eventually I reached the summit and arrived at my destination Pluma Hidalgo, after 20 kilometers of climbing! This is a picturesque village with large impressive church, and houses strung out along a few hilly mountain roads. At 1,300 m above the sea level with panoramic views over the surrounding valleys, Pluma Hidalgo is a little village lost in the middle of nowhere. My arrival was an event for the people who happened to be on the street around the ‘zocalo’ and the church. When I got close they said something to me… but I don’t speak Spanish, so I had no idea what they were saying to me. I only smiled and responded by saying ‘hola’ in return. I bet they don’t get to see a cyclist like me very often.
Pluma Hidalgo – Elevation: 1,300 meters
Pluma Hidalgo is a small mountain community located northeast of Chacalapa, Oaxaca, in a coffee-growing region. Pluma means feather and comes from the shape created by a cloud forming at the top of the nearby hilltop. Hidalgo honors the priest by that name who played a role in securing Mexico’s independence. Pluma Hidalgo is a hub for coffee and chocolate production and you can certainly get a good cup of coffee or chocolate here as well as purchase excellent coffee beans to take home. If you order chocolate to drink, you will be asked if you want it prepared with milk (leche) or in the traditional indigenous style.
The altitude makes for pleasantly mild daytime temperatures and cool nights, requiring some warm clothing at night, in sharp contrast to the hot climate of the nearby coast. From its hillside perch on a clear day you can see the Pacific Ocean 15 miles away.
The main road passes Pluma Hildalgo just to the east of town and a sharp right turnoff brings you in to town from the north. The highway intersects Hwy 200 just east of the Huatulco Airport. 10 km takes you first to Santa María Huatulco where Mountain roads are damaged every year during the rainy season and it typically takes the remainder of the year to make repairs. Use caution when driving mountain roads and do not drive at night because washouts and landslides are usually unmarked.
Mind blowing descent from the summit
But now, it was time to head back to Huatulco if I wanted to be there before the end of the day. What followed was a long descent (20 km long!) which was generally more enjoyable than the one I had while climbing this very same mountain. The road was better, and so was the view.
I began descending down a rather steep road with some serious pothole issues. I was happy that the clouds had cleared a bit and I could see some blue spots in the sky. Rain stopped and road was drying quickly. Ride down was initially quite gradual, and then more pronounced as I approached Pluma Hidalgo. Avoiding the potholes was generally OK, but the problem was that it meant a good amount of braking to ensure not hitting anything too big at 60+km/h. The lack of traffic did mean I felt safe taking a more central line though than I would normally, swings and roundabouts! The view was mainly a large number of trees lining the road, and by the time I got down to a couple of apparent viewpoints, fog had dropped giving me horrific visibility.
The road wasn’t completely lined with trees and so I could see down to the valley below and to the nearby ocean. There were a few strenuous huphills, too. They are the sections of the road on a down-hill section that are actually up-hills, and I call them Mexican down-hills. At different portions of this stretch I passed by a couple of waterfalls and three or four smaller rivulets spilling across the highway. On the side of the road I’ve seen goats and donkeys, pine cones on the roadway, brilliant orange flowered bromeliads, and wild orchids.
I lost track of how much time has passed on this descent, where I was reaching speeds of over 80 km/h and passing several slow moving cars. Breaking skills are crucial when you want to descend fast. I almost lost control on several places and saved myself in the very last moment, already riding over the gravel on the side of the road. I admit I’m a bit less of a daredevil these days and don’t have the same bike handling skills like in my youth. Despite these dangerous curves I managed to descent relatively safe until I could finally hear tropical insects and bird sounds around me. I’ve arrived from a cloudy, fresh, alpine environment to a tropical, hot and humid climate, surrounded by banana and coco trees. What a contrast! The temperature went from a perfectly agreeable mountain climate to the ridiculous humidity and heat of the coast.
On the approach to Pochutla the roadway gradually straighten out, with curves much easier to navigate. Now that my speed was slower I could see bananas and sugar cane under cultivation and for sale, with coffee and honey also offered at roadside stands. Tropical grasses predominate the roadside landscapes. Another indication that I was getting closer to the ocean was blown sand encroaching part of the roadway. A short while later I was entering town of Santa Maria Huatulco and well known last section before getting back on the coastal highway.
Back on the Coastal highway
I went straight through the Santa Maria town center. The town is just 9 km away from the highway and the heat and humidity was very intense. At the highway junction I veered to the left, and went for another kilometer or so before I reached Huatulco airport exit and new section of the highway.
I was now riding along the pacific, however, I wasn’t able to see the ocean until I was back in Crucecita at Chahue bay. If you look at the map, Route 200 is not near the coast in many areas. Even when you are near the coast, there may not be roads to the ocean or they are only gravel roads, not suitable for my light clincher tires. The reason you do not hear much about this part of Mexico is that it is mainly ejido territory. Not much reasons to stop and see. By this point, my legs were hurting and I was feeling hunger and was getting quite thirsty. Two bottles of water I had with me were already empty since Santa Maria Huatulco.
The entire final leg of this training ride was basically on the road I described already at the beginning of this trip. I reached the hotel faster than I could have imagined, with a tinge of regret knowing my day of riding was over. But later, looking across the hotel grounds and savoring a bowl of pasta and my favorite cold ‘Dos Equis serveza’ (Mexican beer) in my hand, I thought that it really isn’t a bad life… at the same time back home in Edmonton, the temperature dropped down to 30 degrees below. Brrrrr…. Senor, una serveza per favor!
I had a good time on the bike in Huatulco. I stopped at cafes where the locals relaxed, places that don’t sell postcards. I felt the air and smelled the smells. I climbed some big mountains. I visited places where regular tourists don’t go. It made me understand how lucky I was to experience life from the bike. By the end of our vacation, my wallet was light, but I’d seen more of the world by now, than anyone I knew. Several years ago I crossed the same mountains by car and if you’re interested here is a link to that adventure.
There is a saying here in Mexico: ‘I’d rather salt Margaritas here, than sidewalks back home’!
Have a good and healthy season.
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