Where will we sleep tonight?
Where will we sleep tonight? That probably seems like a strange thing to have to consider but for travelers like us, it’s a question that needs to be answered daily. It took us 5 days to ride from Durango, where we were the last time I updated this blog, to the city of Zacatecas, approx. 350 km away. Of those five nights, only the final one, after we arrived in Zacatecas, did we actually have an idea where we would spend the night.
From the little bit that we saw, Durango seemed like it was a beautiful place. Unfortunately for us, it rained almost constantly while we were there, limiting our desire to go exploring. These days, we can only hang around for so long without getting antsy and so, rain or not, we packed our bikes and headed off out of the city, braving the traffic as we did so.
Prior to setting out, we had loaded the GPS tracks from the route that Mark and Hana took when leaving Durango, but had also studied the route that Cass Gilbert took. As it turns out, for at least a portion of the first day, we followed neither path, sticking to the paved road as we exited the city. Our initial destination was a waterfall known as El Saltito where we hoped to stop for lunch. The ride there was uneventful and the generous shoulder on the road kept us comfortably away from the traffic.
Swimming? That might be nice.
No doubt influenced by the heavy rainfall, the waterfalls at El Saltito were raging when we arrived. There was absolutely no desire to go swimming there, that’s for sure. Not knowing what to expect, I was surprised to see a good number of other sightseers at the falls, including another cycling enthusiast of Mexican descent who is now living in San Fransisco, CA, and two truck loads of police officers who were apparently taking a break.
El Saltito. No way we were swimming with this much water flowing.
Thinking of our friends Steve and Darla!
The ride from El Saltito followed a theme that we had become accustomed to. That being, us racing against an approaching thunderstorm. We made it to the town of Nombre de Dios by mid afternoon, just as the dark clouds had obscured most of the remaining blue. Given the likelihood of a rainy night, we figured that a hotel might be a good option for sleep, but would there be one? We parked our bikes outside a cafe and ordered ourselves a couple of iced frappes while we consulted Google. For the record, frappes go down really well after a hot day of riding!
Why are we always riding towards a rain storm?
Almost every stream we have seen has been overflowing its banks.
We love the NEAR ME feature of Google Searches. For example, search Hotels Near Me, or Bike Shops Near Me.
Google told us that there was, indeed, a hotel in the small town, and the barista at the cafe confirmed that. While enjoying our coffees, we struck up a conversation with one of the locals who could speak quite good English. When I asked him for his opinion of that hotel as a place to sleep, he said that it was OK, but that his sister had a place at the edge of town that was much better. He told us that the rooms had jacuzzis and that we should tell his sister to give us a “very cheap price.” Cheap or not, he pretty much had us at jacuzzi. We haven’t been in a hotel room with a bath tub in years!
It took us a bit of searching to find the place, and that included asking for directions from a couple of elderly folks sitting outside their home. For the record, our Spanish is nowhere near perfect but as limited as it is, I don’t know how we’d get along without it.
We arrived at the hotel just as our new friend’s sister did, and it’s a good thing as we probably would have been lost otherwise. Outside of the fact that the building had hotel written on it, it looked nothing like a hotel to us. We’ve come to learn that places like this one are called auto hotels. They often look like commercial buildings with large, roll-up garage doors. The rooms are inside, and typically each has its own parking spot. Of course, parking wasn’t on our mind. The jacuzzi was, and sure enough, the room had one. It was far from a luxury suite but where sleep is concerned, we typically don’t look for much.
The tub is filling, very slowly!
We’ve learned that auto hotels have a reputation for being used as a private getaway spot for amorous couples. As long as they change the sheets, that doesn’t bother me!
The next day, almost immediately after leaving the hotel, we came across a small store. Needing to refill our water bottles, we stopped, and as it turned out, the place was also a restaurant, serving up a hot breakfast. Expecting a long day of riding, we decided to splurge.
Breakfast was followed by more highway riding, once again with a generous shoulder. As good as that sounds, Mexicans have the habit of often driving half way onto the shoulder, or in some cases, completely on the shoulder. While I can see the benefits to the cars when it comes to giving way to a faster moving vehicle wanting to pass, or making it a bit more difficult to have a head on collision, it is a tad disconcerting for cyclists looking to stay as far away from the traffic as possible.
This guy is just a bit on the shoulder. Many are half and half.
The first town we passed through after leaving the highway was Vicente Guerrero. We had only ridden a couple of blocks into the town when we stopped to talk with two men. They were quite interested in the usual details of our trip, as well as the bikes. While speaking with them, a young lady who we later learned was the daughter of one of the men, came out and began speaking English with us. As it turned out, she was teaching an English class in the building right where we had stopped and asked us if we would come in to speak with her class.
Once inside, each of her students came to the front of the class to introduce themselves, and share some of the things that they enjoyed. We learned that many of them like pizza! When everyone in the class had finished, Rebecca did the same for us only in Spanish. After photos were taken we were invited to eat but having only just started our day, we politely declined. It was a super cool experience, especially given that it was so unexpected.
Fun experience speaking with this English class.
Without really intending to make it so, the day turned out to be a very long one. We passed through or by a number of small towns but none of them called out to us to say, “Sleep here.” As has become SOP, rain threatened us from about mid-afternoon onward. This time we were fortunate in that we managed to avoid all but a few sprinkles.
Francisco, an English-speaking cowboy we came across.
Does this tree look lonely?
A Tecate truck giving us some room as he passes.
We left the paved road where our GPS track indicated, but not long after that, found ourselves with a bit of a dilemma. The dirt road paralleling some old railway tracks that we were supposed to be following was flooded. We had a few choices: turn back to the paved road, travel on the tracks themselves, or ride along the cow path — littered with thorns I should add — that ran beside the tracks. We alternated between B and C for a mile or so until the dirt road had dried out enough to be rideable again.
Ominous clouds in the distance.
Pretty sure this is not the route.
The GPS shows us on the route.
We alternated between this cow path and the tracks.
There were fewer thorns on the tracks.
Unknown to us at this point, we had made a wrong turn a little ways back.
The next challenge we faced was a fast-moving stream, swollen from the recent rains. In hashing, coming to a spot where you have to turn around is called an On Back. Not ready to brave the water, we retraced our steps, hoping to find another way to our destination. Unfortunately, the alternate track that we followed came up against the same stream, forcing us to deal with it.
This was not expected. Our second On Back of the day.
I first tested the water by walking across the stream, assessing it’s depth (it was over my knees in spots) and the strength of the current (it was strong). Riding across was definitely not an option so we stripped the bikes of their panniers and carried them across, one by one.
There was no way around it… we had to get wet.
Was that our only challenge? Of course not. What fun would that be? The sun was dropping and the temperature falling when we came upon a second water crossing, requiring a repeat of the carry-the-bikes procedure. By this time, we were pros though!
I’d like to say that our planned destination, Mesillas, immediately presented itself after getting ourselves wet but that wasn’t the case. We actually lost the trail for a period of time, requiring our third On Back of the day (yes, there was another one back by the railway tracks too) and quite a bit of pushing the bikes through long grass.
Is it going to rain?
When we finally did arrive in Mesillas after riding just shy of 100 km, we still had to find a place to sleep. We’ve gradually been refining the question that we use to ask for sleeping options. I made my first attempt by asking a man washing his pickup truck if he knew of a place where we could stay or camp. He did not, but he did let us use his hose to wash the mud off our bikes. Nice!
I made my second attempt by asking a group of guys sitting outside a store, drinking beer. They were more forthcoming with suggestions but frustrated with our inability to understand their directions, two of them hopped in a truck and said, “Follow me” (in English), leading us to a spot to camp. While camping there was OK, they said, they suggested that we go and speak to the owner of the adjacent ranch, Hector, to ask him if he had a place where we could stay. “He speaks English,” they told us.
While I would probably never have considered asking a stranger for such a thing before embarking on this trip, this seemed like no big deal to us now so we gave it a crack. From behind a locked gate, I called out to a lady who we later learned was Hector’s wife. Once again, I shared our story only this time, we struck gold. Not only were we offered a room in which to sleep, we were also invited into their house where we were served Mescal (like Tequila) and serenaded by Hector playing Spanish music on his guitar. Awesome!
Hector and Esther served us breakfast the next day before we set off across the mountains. Prior to doing so though, they wrote us a letter of introduction to give to their friends in San Fransisco, should we make it that far and want to stop there to sleep. Super cool, right?
We awoke to sunshine.
Hector and Esther, our two new amigos.
We knew that the day was going to start with a 1000′ climb and that there’d be no paved highway to ride on. To tell the truth, the initial climb was easier than we expected. Note that I said initial. The mountains were not going to let us off that easily. We managed to travel only 43 km that day, and it was probably more taxing than the 100 km we rode the previous day (tired legs didn’t help matters). The scenery was incredible though so that largely kept my mind off the discomfort.
See the stream behind the cattle guard? Also not expected!
These guys in the pickup truck showed up at just the right time to give us a lift over the stream.
Vertical cattle guards are not cyclist friendly!
Our day was filled with slow climbs and rapid descents.
The trail turned to cobblestone. Beautiful to look at but not great to ride on.
I was told this took a few years to complete.
Fishing for tuna.
We normally eat the green tuna. The red one was new to us.
We are nearing 8000′ of elevation.
Our sunshine has given way to clouds.
Love the donkeys.
We had a brief chat with the shepherd (I think) before taking this pic.
And descending. Repeat over and over.
We’re heading to that valley.
More water crossings, this one rideable.
It started raining hard immediately after I took his pic.
This cow responded to my Moooo!
San Francisco, our destination for the day.
A nice descent to the village.
This guy surprised me as much as I surprised him. He dropped his tuna!
Heading down the switchback road.
San Francisco ultimately did appear, and when we arrived into the town, I asked a couple of women on the street if they could direct us to Filipé and Sonia, Hector’s friends. Not able to understand the ladies very well, I showed them our letter which ultimately resulted in our being led to their house. Our guide told us to wait by a tree while she went in to spring the news to them, that there were a couple of dirty gringos outside with bikes who are looking for a place to stay. At least that’s how I imagined it went.
The initial greeting was a tad awkward for us all, but Filipé and Sonia were incredibly generous hosts. They fed us and gave us a room to sleep, and interacting with their family was exactly the type of experience that we were hoping for when we set out on this adventure.
We went out with Filipé and his kids to pick some corn.
Filipé and his daughter returning with some fresh grapes. They were delicious!
After I took this pic we all joined in. It was a corn husking party!
The chicks had been put away to keep them away from the cat, I think.
Filipé, Sonia, and their extremely well-behaved children.
The next day was another very long one. We started off by stopping at a tiny tienda (store) to purchase some water. While we were refilling our bottles outside, the owner of the shop came out and offered us two pastries, free. Isn’t that a nice start to the day?
Most of the riding from that point on took place on dirt roads running between cultivated fields. We passed acres and acres of corn, beans, chile peppers, and grapes. We did have a couple of strange experiences that day. The first was during a conversation with a man tending one of the fields. He could speak quite good English and told us that he lived in the US for quite a number of years, moving around. When I asked where he lived, the spots he mentioned were all ones that had State prisons. Coincidence? Probably, but he also holds the distinction of being the first person to ask us if we smoke weed.
This “lake” actually appeared as if it was low ground that had flooded.
Beautiful riding through this area.
Corn, with a half moon to keep watch over it.
The second strange experience occurred when we stopped outside a small town’s church to refill our water bottles. An old man on a burro rode right up to me and gave me an incredible scowl, loudly going Hmmmf! I responded by giving him a smile and a Good Afternoon. He repeated his Hmmmf! I repeated my Good Afternoon. After no change in his demeanor, I gave him my best “WTF?” look before turning to ignore him. For the record, I chalk that up to old man craziness, not anything to do with Mexico. There are crazy people everywhere, and everyone else in the town was extremely pleasant.
Trying our best to keep our feet dry.
We were not the only ones bypassing these big puddles.
Colorful flowers lined the roads.
Love the splash of color against the old stone wall.
Sonia gave us some corn to take with us. Cooked, of course.
This snake almost caused a bike accident. What do you think, Gopher snake?
Note the cow that got away.
A sign that reads, “Obey the Signs.”
Riding out of that town on a paved road, we thought that we’d be safe from any further drama. That was not to be though. The town’s water is apparently supplied by a large lake that is held back by a dam. I assume the recent rainfall had filled the lake beyond capacity and so they were spilling off some of the water, right across the road! Fortunately, while fast moving, the water was only 6″ deep so we could either ride or walk the bikes across. I rode, getting my shoes wet. Rebecca wisely removed her shoes and walked across.
A super dangerous place for these kids to be playing.
Rebecca is smarter than I am. She took off her shoes and walked across.
Spilling water from the lake.
Once again, we rode through multiple towns with none of them presenting a good option for us to spend the night. As the area is very agricultural, every field was fenced off, making camping a challenge. We took a couple of stabs at finding a spot to wild camp but none were very good. Ultimately, we found ourselves in Nueva Alianza, just as the sun was setting.
Enjoying a pleasant ride.
A big descent and then a climb towards La Ordeña.
Love the color of the setting sun on this cactus.
Shop keepers are usually good people to ask for places to stay so after breaking the ice by purchasing a drink, I busted out my canned “we’re traveling on bikes and looking for a place to sleep” speech. The owner of the store, aided by his wife who overheard the conversation, said no, that he didn’t know of a spot, but that we should ask the Comisario.
Before we left Hector’s ranch, he told us something similar, that if we needed anything in a town, that we should speak to the Comisario. The shop keeper told us that the Comisario was kind of like the president of the town, although the word translates to commissioner. Regardless, we were willing to give it a shot.
We rode back up the hill to the house that the shop keeper directed us to, and I knocked on the door. Salvador, the Comisario, listened patiently to my broken-Spanish story. He then led me to the house next door, unlocked it and showed me the rustic insides. I told him it was perfect but he didn’t seem convinced. We then went back outside to where Rebecca was waiting with the bikes, and what followed was probably the most awkward 15 minutes of the trip. It was almost laughable, but only because we couldn’t really understand what he was telling us. I think he was saying that he wanted to wait for his wife to return, to see if there was a better spot. We couldn’t completely understand that though so the silence, and the time waiting, was weird.
Ultimately, we did end up spending the night in that house, our jacuzzi being replaced by bails of hay. As I said though, we are easy to please when it comes to shelter. Any roof to sleep under is better than a tent!
When the next morning rolled around, we left at 7:30 as we had promised. Since we first began our cycling journey in California, the time has changed for us twice as we’ve moved south and then east. While the sun was beginning to brighten the horizon at 7:30, it was by no means light out and was still extremely chilly. See your breath kind of chilly!
We were up way before the sun.
It was chilly riding.
Trying to make friends with this horse.
This one came running to make sure that his friend was OK.
We rode out of town, making our way past a number of cultivated fields. Horses and cows that were out grazing were our only companions. As we often do, we rode for an hour or so before we started thinking of breakfast. We seriously debated stopping to eat on the side of the road just outside of the town of El Maguey but decided instead to enjoy the downhill in front of us and to roll into town on the off chance that there would be a place where we could find something to eat.
We’ve learned how to more easily deal with the vertical cattle guards.
El Maguey impressed us right away with its cobblestone roads and old ruins. When we came across two gentlemen conversing on the road, we stopped to say hello, intending to ask them about a store or a place to eat. Before we could do so, Arturo, one of the two men, invited us to his house for coffee. Of course, we said yes, and when coffee turned into breakfast, we said yes again. Arturo shared that he lives in El Maguey 6 months of the year and then works in Houston the other 6 months. That explained his excellent English. His home was beautiful, and he was a gracious host. After eating and drinking our fill, we bid him adieu and continued on our way towards Zacatecas.
This is how we get along.
Arturo was an extremely gracious host and an ambassador to his town.
It wasn’t all that long before the quiet country roads were replaced with ones bearing high traffic. This is always the most stressful part of our trip, making our way into and out of cities. Bloggers can be a bit funny. We had read that there was a climb when going into Zacatecas but no one mentioned the fact that the climb takes place on a 6-lane super highway! I would have laughed about the experience if I hadn’t been so frightened by the fast-moving cars and trucks.
When we ultimately did make it into the historic part of Zacatecas where our hosts Francisco and Sandra live, we were immediately stunned by the beauty of the streets and buildings. And unknown to us until that very moment, our hosts live in perhaps one of the best locations in the city! It’s easy to see why Zacatecas has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We feel very fortunate to have made it here, and I can see us hanging around for at least a few more days to explore before continuing on south.
We’re definitely going to hang around Zacatecas for a few days.