Donde Vienen? Son Americanos?
Shouts followed us down the dirt track as we headed south from the traveller hot spot of Guanajuato into the rustic farmlands that covered the arse end of the state.
Since leaving the tourist taco trail a couple of days earlier we’d gone from being ignored to literally stopping traffic as excited locals shouted out to us – asking where we were from and if we were Americans.
Despite being used to this question it was amazing just how much we manage to f@ck up the answer in Spanish. We’d shouted back everything from “You’re all Australian” to “We’re from Argentina” to often astonished looks. But despite the painfully slow language progression things were getting better.
It had been three months since we crossed from San Diego into the chaos that is Tijuana and while we were still stuck firmly in the basics of the language (where is this? What is that? Can I have… etc) we’d somewhat improved.
We’d also gotten used to Mexican way of life and since crossing the water from the touristic Baja California to the massive mainland we’d fallen head over heels in love with this loud, colourful and delicious country.
Yes, it could be frustrating and at times we were reminded painfully of China (no one seemed able to queue, locals seemed to enjoy setting off fireworks or firing up a mobile disco at 3am and the lack of etiquette when it came to sharing a footpath had driven us to extreme levels of passive aggression) but the good outweighed the bad.
From the sizzling taco stands to the old men shining shoes in the central plaza (no matter how cosmopolitan the city) there was a charm that had worked it’s way under our skin and convinced us that one day, some how, we would move to Mexico.
But I digress.
A week earlier we’d managed to pry ourselves from a cosy Airbnb apartment in Leon. Over the Christmas period we hit a major slump (these happen from time to time) and despite our plan to cycle east towards San Luis Potosi we were feeling uninspired.
It didn’t help that we both had horrible head colds and it also didn’t help that as much as we loved Mexico it wasn’t always the easiest country to cycle.
The roads were often jam packed and chaotic with trucks and buses flying past within inches while farting out toxic fumes. And it also didn’t help that the secondary roads were often so atrocious as to be virtually impossible to ride.
All in all we felt ourselves descending into a kind of lethargy that’s tough to crawl out of which meant we made it just 60km from Leon to the world heritage city of Guanajuato before diving back into our pity party again.
We’d been looking forward to the colourful ciudad of Guanajuato since first crossing the border. It’s about as iconic as Mexican cities get and is a picture of history and vibrancy thanks to the stacked, colourful houses built into the hillside.
We booked ourselves into the cheapest hostel in town which was a bit smelly, a bit mouldy and still beyond our budget and settled in for a couple of touristy days.
Despite the chaos the city was truly beautiful and we had a blast trotting around the old town, hiking to the iconic monument Al Pipila and meeting some lovely expats who lived in the city.
But as we prepared to leave the gastro struck and suddenly our short stay turned into a week long sabbatical.
This meant our route would take some re-thinking.
While kicking back in Leon we’d realised that time was truly of the essence in terms of lining up the correct seasons in South America (ie avoiding monsoons) and so we’d bitten the bullet and decided to not only skip Central America, but book a flight for mid February out of Mexico City, direct to Bogota.
We’d agonised over the decision but some cyclist friends (who had pedalled through Central America) ultimately helped us make the choice. They’d warned it was unbearably hot, largely unenjoyable (for cyclists) and honestly “you’re better off spending that time and money in South America”. While we appreciate that travel experiences are subjective sadly money was a crucial factor for us and in the end we decided that it simply wasn’t worth it on this trip.
And so we booked a flight for February 15 direct to Colombia’s capital. The flight with Interjet was just $140USD each plus $30 for the bike (flight options got incredibly more expensive in Central America).
But with a cold and then gastro chewing up what precious time we had left in Mexico we realised our plan to pedal east to San Luis Potosi and then south might not be the best.
And so we beelined south to Michoacan.
It meant skipping all of Oaxaca and Chiapas (two states we’d really looked forward to) but that would have to wait for another time.
On a hot and dusty day we beelined out of wobbly and cobbly Guanajuato on a “secondary road” on the suggestion of Google Maps.
It promised to be an easy 50km to the strawberry capital of Irapuarto but after 10km our slightly bumpy road turned into gravel and then mud before ending in the middle of a ramshackle village in front of a pretty fast flowing river.
And so we battled back through the mud and gravel to another town and then another dirt track which ended in a river we could at least walk across.
What should have been a short ride took six hours and served us a stern reminder that Google Maps can’t be trusted while Mexico’s secondary roads are often rubbish.
Roughly 15km out of Irapuarto the tough day took a turn for the better thanks to a fun local named Felix. We’d been feeling pretty sorry for ourselves (trucks were farting constantly in our faces and the road had turned death defyingly busy) when the cheerful dad pedalled up for a chat. He told us he commuted by bike on this road every day (a 100km round trip!) He was so keen to help us and learn all he could about Australia that he then went 14km out of his way to escort us to a cheap pension in town. Thanks Felix – this is why we cycle tour!
From Irapuarto we continued steadily south towards the gorgeous and historic city of Patzcuarto. It seemed to be burning off season in Michoacan which meant some seriously smoke filled days along a somehow still busy road.
But Patzcuaro was worth it.
Themed red and white houses nestled on cobble stoned streets above an enormous lake set the scene for indigenous rich Patzcuaro – a town that sprung up in 1320 AD as part of the Tarascan empire. Unlike many of the cities throughout Mexico (which plate up the classic colonial look) Patzcuaro retains an air and appearance of something much older and as a result it’s incredibly unique and charming.
The town’s also littered with quaint hotels and hostels which Lonely Planet had promised us made bargaining for a cheap price pretty easy. It wasn’t. No-one wanted a bar of our “por favour mas barrato” (please more cheaper) but in the end we scored a pretty basic private room in a completely empty hotel for the quoted rack rate of 300 pesos (about $15 USD).
Meandering the bumpy narrow roads of the town was a treat but yet another spanner seemed to be getting stuck in the works… a spanner that had followed me since Mazatlan.
Two months ago – when first landing on the mainland of Mexico, I’d managed to injure my hamstring while carrying all panniers at once up a flight of stairs like a right muppet. Fobbing it off as a little muscle strain I’d sufficiently ignored it (it didn’t hurt too much while cycling) and then soldiered on despite it hurting after walking merely 100 metres consecutively.
By time we reached Patzcuaro I was concerned enough to consider seeing a doctor, especially considering the quite brutal climbing from 2000m to 4700m that lay ahead of us.
In the interim I decided to do some deep yoga stretching (that fixes everything right?). Wrong.
The pain got infinitely worse and my mood plummeted. I felt weak and out of sorts. Simple tasks become ridiculously difficult with often hilarious results.
One night, in our cheap and cheerful pension, I wobbled out into the reception area to merely fill up my steel water bottle. On the way I dropped it loudly on the tiles scaring the sh#t out of the poor receptionist and then while filling up the bottle I managed to spill about half a litre all over the floor. I was still muttering a stream of “perdons” when I bent over to pick up the bottle and let out a loud fart.
I gave up apologising and waddled quickly back to the room where Scott was doubled over laughing having heard the whole thing go down.
We left Patzcuaro early in the morning and cycled the slow rollercoaster road amid heavy traffic to Morelia. The plan was to stay a couple of days with Warmshowers host Carlos but two things happened. The second day I woke up I could scarcely walk and Scott had gastro (again).
There was nothing for it but to go to the doctor and get my problem sorted.
The doctor cost just a few dollars to see and after managing to communicate that I had a hamstring injury she told me to help the recovery process by putting my food in hot water every day.
She also jabbed my bum with a steroid injection.
We decided to take matters further and visit a physio. This time we got a bright young professional who was so thorough we spent two hours in his clinic. He confirmed I had a hamstring tear and warned that it would only get worse if I didn’t rest it for at least a solid two weeks (preferably a month).
Cycle touring, he said, was out.
And so with just three weeks left on the Mexico cloak we decided to ditch the bikes, pick up the backpacks and rejoin the tourist taco trail on the gringo steed of choice – a bus.