The Road to la Biosfera

    Millions of crickets, birds, frogs, and other unknown creatures sing, chirp, and gurgle beyond the warm glow of the small veranda light bulb above me.  Far off in the insidious darkness of the horizon, an inky outline whispers of distant mountain peaks while nearer the tepid light casts on lush tropical foliage as it undulates lazily in the gentle breezes of the Sierra Oriental.  This is Gomez Farias, gateway to Reserva de la Biosfera el Cielo.

    This morning I awoke somewhat later than I had originally intended to, glancing at my small bicycle odometer clock in the gloom of the darkened hotel room of Villa de Aguayo in Ciudad Victoria and seeing that it was almost nine thirty.  There was much to do before I could begin my journey for the day, and I quickly got up to shower and begin my many tasks.  Once I was dressed, I headed for a quick breakfast of huevos machacados at Cafe Canton a block away and just around the corner from the Centro square.  The little restaurant was packed with locals (which is almost redundant to say, since I seemed to be the only person from out of town in the whole city) but I thankfully found one open table.  As I waited, I pulled my little spanish dictionary out of my pocket and looked up a few curious words from signs that I had seen around town.  A few moments later, as I was polishing off the remainder of my chips and salsa (yep, apparently they do serve them with every meal), the huevos arrived.  The dish was quite satisfying, and, not wanting to seem out of character, I quickly wolfed it all down, as I always do when food makes the mistake of setting itself down in front of me.

    Next, it was off to search for a panaderia for some fresh baked bread and to the grocery store for some ingredients for cooking when I got out into the woods.  Although I never did find the bakery in my immediate vicinity, when I entered the grocery I quickly saw that they had their own full selection of fresh baked breads and found a rather plump looking wheat loaf.  I roamed up and down the isles searching for other compact, non-perishable goods (much easier said than done with my packing constraints) and eventually settled on a small bag of rice, canned vegetables, canned black beans, and some strawberry jam to replace mine.  I headed to the checkout line, and although they were all open, their were rows of people at every one.  Finally, I had payed and was on my way back to the hotel to drop off my goods.

    Although the evening before I had spent several hours sitting in a wonderfully cozy and hip little coffee shop in a beautiful old spanish style building on Hidalgo St. (which made me wonder, would we have these in the US if it wasn’t for Starbucks?) exploiting their free wifi, I still hadn’t managed to finish writing my previous journal entry after all of my research and reading was complete (oh, and they were closing at eleven).  So I unloaded my bags from my bike, rolled it out the front door of the hotel, and hopped on, pedaling down the quaint little city streets to the other side of town where the coffee shop was.  When I arrived, I ordered a latte and sat down with the intention of simply uploading the journal entry which I had finished writing in the hotel room the night before, but wouldn’t ya know it, it just wasn’t going to be that simple.  I hit the upload button then waited and waited, looking up some directions on mapquest and returning some e-mails in the meantime, but even an hour later the site had not gone through.  Then finally, the little iWeb icon began to bounce at the bottom of my screen, surely indicating that the process was complete.  However, when I went to check, I instead was greeted by an error message, saying that the site was unable to be uploaded.  Argh!  This wasn’t what I needed right before heading into the wild unknowns of an isolated national park to go hiking for the next few days and not knowing when the next time I would see an internet connection would be.  Although checkout time was at one, I decided that it was my duty to let the world know that I was still alive (but mostly just my parents), since this would be my first entry since arriving in Mexico, and I was already five days in.  I hit the upload button again with conviction and glanced at the time nervously – almost noon already, and I still hadn’t packed.  As the time drew nearer to quarter past, I finally folded and decided that this was not a good enough reason to lose all of my riding time for the day or to be stuck in Ciudad Victoria for another night.  However, I curiously checked my site nonetheless, and it was a miracle!  Although some of the other formatting changes I had made never went through, the journal and photos appeared to be online.  I quickly folded down my laptop screen, strapped it onto the back of my bicycle, and raced back down the narrow streets to Villa Aguayo and repack my equipment.  In record time, I changed into my riding gear, stowed my toiletries, electronic equipment, and clothes, then began strapping it all to my bike.  Once the task was complete I looked at my clock – ten till one, not good, but good enough.

    As I rolled my conestoga wagon out into the street and began pedaling down Calle Colon towards Carretera 85, I quickly began to wind up the edges of one of the nearby hills and as I reached the top it flattened out into a long, straight, open roadway, flanked with small tiendas and casitas.  The sky was a dazzlingly bright blue with huge, marshmallowy pure white clouds lazily drifting across it as I felt the wind beneath my feet, surging me forward at delicious speeds well over twenty miles per hour.  At this rate I would still reach the town of Gomez Farias by nightfall, and could hopefully then find a campsite nearby.  But, yet again, my luck just had to run out.  As it were, a few miles farther down the road, a sign for 85 directed me to the right, and as I made the sharp turn onto the roadway and began pedaling along, I quickly realized that I was now putting the force of my entire body into just maintaining a speed that was now almost half of what it had been before.  Nevertheless, I carried on, with the ominous mountains rising off the in distance and the road headed straight for them.

    Unfortunately, the wind never did let up or change direction again after that, and I found myself begrudgingly wallowing along through the opposite gusts, hoping that I would at least make it near to my destination by days end.  Now, for those of you who think that I’m complaining too much, go ahead and strap a seventy pound wide-load to the back of your steel framed bicycle and ride for eight hours into the wind, then come back and tell me what you think.  Anyway, so things went along this way for some time, but fortunately, I had the mountain range off to my right as I rode to remind me of what glorious hiking was to come.  Then, a couple of hours into the ride, I discovered that my route did not just skirt along the edges of the mountains, it in fact began to climb through them.  I was soon angling up windy foothill roads into the range, but ironically, I was quite glad of this.  I realized that things have changed a lot since back in Alabama, and whereas then the hills were my enemies, now that I am a hardened cycling machine, the hills are my friends, shielding me from winds while bestowing me with beautiful hillside vistas and the satisfaction of looking down on what I have conquered.  So this went on for a while, and I was quite pleased to take a slightly slower pace and amble along through the rolling hills, mesas and small mountains.  As I began to climb one hill, I found myself chugging along and towards the top saw a sign welcoming me to the Tropico de Capricorn.  Well, this was interesting!  I couldn’t remember exactly what the Tropic of Capricorn actually was, but what a great feeling to have actually arrived at it – and to discover that it is apparently a tangible place.  At the summit of the hill I found a small tienda, aptly named after the Tropic, and decided to stop in for a quick refresco before continuing on.  After I had finished my ice cold bottle of gatorade, I headed out to my bike, saddled up, and began riding back across the dirt and stone shoulder towards the roadway, but as I headed down the other side of the hill I realized that this was in fact a mistake.  Somewhere in that dirt shoulder, something sharp had decided that it had it out for me, and decided to poke a hole in my tire.  I reached the bottom of the hill and noticed the loss of handling and pulled over to the side of the rode.  Oh great, here we go again, a flat tire.

    I began tediously removing the front tire (although I was glad that it was the front and not the rear, which is usually far worse) and was soon hard at work seeking and patching the tire.  But as upon patching it, checking the tire for sharp objects, and inflating the tube to check for any leaks, I saw another small staple-like piece of metal sticking out of the tube, so I removed it and patched that area too.  Satisfied, I began to replace the tube and tire on the bike and started pumping – but nothing happened.  Hadn’t I just patched the tube?  What was going on?  Exasperated, I began removing the tube again and found another hole!   What was going on here?  This time I had had enough, this was the third patch this tire had seen and it was time for a new tube.  As I was digging in my bags for a spare tube, two amigos came rumbling along in their little van, wearing cowboy hats, and stepped out to ask if I was alright.  Although they seemed benevolent, they had a little bit of a shady look to them and even though I told them that I was fine, they insisted on sticking around to see how things turned out  Although one did hold the bike upright for me while I was working on it, the found the other one asking me a few questions about whether the bike was new and how much one of these went for – a few questions which I had already learned made for awkward conversation, especially when traveling through somewhat indigent regions.  But fortunately, the bike was eventually repaired and back in gear, and after fumbling with some break adjustments for a few minutes, I was anxious to hit the road and say goodbye to my new friends, who sat and watched me ride off as I headed down the highway, nervously glancing back a few times.

    I had lost over an hour during the whole ordeal, and when you end up starting your journey so late in the day, this becomes a more critical setback.  I rode for a short time over a few windy, undulating hills, and then noticed that I had begun a steady upward climb.  I glanced off to my right and saw that the ground down below was growing farther and farther away.  As I rounded a curve in the road, I saw that the path ahead continued to hug the side of the mountain and became a sharper incline.  Before I knew it, I was in low gear and crawling along up the road, which was carved into the side of the mountainside.  I felt a little better when I heard a truck coming behind me, and when I glanced back, saw that it too was idling along at about fifteen miles per hour.  This went on for about another forty minutes, but when at last I saw the crescendo, I looked off to my side and saw that the valley far below had fallen away, revealing endless mountain ranges rising far in the distance.  I pedaled up to a point where the road began to flatten out and then looked off to the other side of the mountaintop, and here I saw massive rock formations jutting out of the ground amid fields and rolling hills.  For a few moments, I rested and sipped my water while appreciating my rewarding vista.

    But soon it was time to continue on.  I hopped back onto my bike and rode a short distance further, and the road began to dip back down towards the opposite side of the mountain.  As I started to coast down, I saw that the way ahead was a vigorously snaking path that followed the contours of the mountainside and fell away quickly.  I was soon cruising down at a furious speed, gripping onto the handlebars with what I like to call the “death grip.”  On and on and on, I continued to sail along towards the low hills which I could see off to my left.  Eventually, after about twenty minutes, I saw the ground leveling off and then gently rising ahead.  At the top of the little hill, there was a small open air restaurant with a large sign that said “Mariscos.”  This seemed like a good time for a break, so I pulled over, parked my bike against a pillar and sat down for dinner.  Although the plump young lady who waited on me (the only one who was working there besides the cook, who I believe was her mother) was not particularly friendly, I did have the marisco (shellfish) soup, which had tiny prawns, snails, and scallops, and was quite delicious.  It didn’t take me long to finish and I knew that soon I would have to find a place to camp, but that first I had more ground to cover.

    Once I was back underway, I found that I had to begun to make quicker progress and that the wind had become a less obtrusive factor now that I was surrounded by mountains.  I also noticed that the landscape began to change, turning from drier, low shrubs into taller, more lush foliage.  The small villages on the road were now more so thatched huts and sold jars and bottles of a wine-colored liquid, and the people that I saw tended to look somewhat more rustic and mountain-esque.  The light was quickly fading and although I searched tentatively for a place to set my tent, I was also enjoying the dynamic panorama of the ominous cobalt blue clouds which slothed along the mountain ridge and the strong pace which I was setting.  As I looked down at my odometer, I realized that I should soon be coming upon the road to Gomez Farias, and although it was already late and the sun had already sunk out of sight behind the ridge, I thought, well, why not.  So I pedaled on vigorously, reaching into my handlebar bag and grabbing my blinking red tail-light and clipping it onto the back of my shorts, then turning on my headlight.  For some reason, I had felt a rush of energy.  Perhaps it was at the thought of the beauty and mystery of El Cielo close ahead, or perhaps the refreshment of the cool, damp air and gently swaying dark silhouettes of banana trees that flanked the foothills.

    But as the light faded completely, I found myself wondering why I hadn’t already reached the turnoff.  Another half an hour passed and soon my energy began to wane.  I wondered what I could possibly do, as the roadsides were lined with fences and there was nowhere to camp, even if I could set up my tent in the absolute darkness.  But suddenly, up ahead I saw a sign, and thankfully, there it was, the road to Gomez Farias.  I turned on to it and rode along, at a somewhat slower pace, since my muscles were reaching a point where they no longer wanted to cooperate and moved along sluggishly.  The road was flat, and although there were a few small potholes which were invisible beyond my headlight until I had already run over them, I was optimistic that I would soon cover the twelve kilometer stretch and arrive.  But after three kilometers, the elevation began to rise and the road disappeared into the forest.  Now, it was just me, the ambient sounds of the night, and the tiny little spot of light cast by my headlight wiggling around on the pavement ahead as I called upon my last ounces of strength to carry me to the village.  Unfortunately, the rest of the way was all uphill, and at my speed it was over an hour before I finally saw the gates to the town rise before me.  My first inclination was to disembark at the first store along the way and get a beverage and a snack while asking the cashier where I might find a hotel.  Well, as has frequently been the case, the girl who was working was not very informative, but I had seen a hotel around the corner, so I stopped in to inquire.  After speaking with the young lady here about rates, I found that this one was a little out of my price range, and although she tried to cut the rate, it was still far too much.  However, when I asked, she did mention Casa de Piedras down the street, and up hearing it, I also remembered it from my Lonely Planet guide (which was buried too deep in my bag to consult at the moment).  Back on my bicycle, I ambled farther along the narrow, tree enshrouded street, past the tiny elevated gardens of the centro, and then off to my left, spotted Casa de Piedras.  I  went into the open air reception office and after haggling for a moment over price, was soon satisfied and he led me to my room.  We walked through a small verdant courtyard alive with birds and tropical plants, and at the far corner, he opened the door and pulled my bike in along the wall.  I stepped inside and was in awe – the room was gorgeous!  small, cozy, tastefully decorated, and with huge wooden framed sliding glass doors on one side that opened to a wide balcony which overlooked the valley below.  The bathroom was set with white and navy tiles and had a huge open shower area in the corner.  It was completely perfect, and was the most rewarding end to such a gruelingly exhausting day… and night, of riding.  I showered, slipped into a wonderful pair of cotton underwear, and soon was out on the balcony, typing this entry for you, and entertaining myself with thoughts of what the next few days in el Cielo would bring.


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