Zacatecas to Guanajuato: Shades of the Baja Divide
Although we’ve had some tough climbing and long days since arriving in Mazatlan, I have to admit that compared to the difficult riding conditions we had in Baja, we’ve had it pretty easy as of late. That all changed during the past week though when we decided to follow in the tire tracks of Mark and Hana from Highlux. With all the pushing we had to do, it was definitely shades of the Baja Divide.
When we left Zacatecas, it was reluctantly that we did so. The city was amazing but made especially so because of the incredible hosts we had, Francisco and Sandra. Rebecca and I, along with our new friend Carlos, set off early last Sunday morning. Getting in and out of the cities can often be the sketchiest part of our journey but in this case, we couldn’t have planned our departure better. Coincidentally, a long-distance running race was taking place on the day that we left and the city had closed a number of the streets to traffic. The three of us rode together alongside the runners for some time until Rebecca and I went off in search of dirt roads, and Carlos headed off in a different direction.
The first day of riding was a long one, and by no means easy. We had some significant hills to tackle, and a couple of them required pushing. We got a lot of experience pushing the bikes in Baja but since leaving La Paz, have had very little need to dismount our bikes. Believe me… it’s not something that we missed! After 93 km and 10.5 hours underway, we finally arrived in San Jose de Gracia, our goal for the day.
We knew very little about San Jose de Gracia aside from what Mark and Hana had written on their blog. It’s obviously a big tourist destination and the party was still in full swing when we arrived. Strangely though, as dusk fell, the town started to close up shop. We were fine with that though because all we wanted to do after eating was to retire to our hotel room and get some sleep, knowing that we had another big day ahead of us.
We got a late start the next day, hanging around to devour a big breakfast. That was probably wise though because we’d need the calories for what was to come. The first obstacle was a large dam that had to be negotiated. This is one of the things I was happy to read about in the Highlux blog as without doing that, we may not have known what to do.
Getting down from the top of the dam required first removing our panniers and then, using teamwork, slowly lowering the bikes down a very steep set of stairs. I have no doubt that there are some crazy, technical bikers who could ride down those stairs. When looking at the images though, keep in mind that just as pics of waves always look smaller than when you’re on a boat, looking at them up close, so to do images of hills and stairs look less steep on a computer screen than they do in person. I fully admit that when lowering the bikes I was a tad afraid of them getting away from us and careening down the stairs to end up in a pile of twisted metal at the bottom. Fortunately, that did not occur.
While that may have been the most stressful part of the day, the remainder had even more challenges. There was a significant bit of climbing to follow but that ultimately got us up on top of a plateau with some beautiful single track and two-track riding. Unfortunately, the farmers, not wanting their cattle to go astray, had locked a number of the gates that we had to cross. Each one was a puzzle in its own right, leaving us to determine the best way to get by it. Do we drag the bikes under the gate? Do we lift them over? It was like a bad video game, especially when the red ants decided to attack me at the final gate!
Given that we had such a late start, and the fact that we were traveling so slowly, we knew that there was no way we’d make it as far as Mark and Hana had when they covered the same ground. We really didn’t have much of a choice about whether to continue on or not though. Mother Nature made that decision for us.
Dark clouds had been increasingly covering the sky since we first began riding that day and by mid-afternoon, they were ready to unleash their watery cargo. While we have no problem riding in the rain, when it comes along with thunder and lightning, we know it’s time to stop. That is especially true when we’re high on a plateau with nothing but grass and scrub around us.
Not being smart enough to preemptively deal with the situation, we pitched our tent as the rain bucketed down. The rain did ease up just long enough for me to snap a few pics, and for Rebecca to prepare us some dinner. Other than that brief respite though, we spent the entire night hiding inside our tent as a lightning show continued on around us.
The following day began with some super fun riding. In retrospect, it was perhaps a bit too technical for a couple of newbie riders who had only just woken up. I think we should have at least had a cup of coffee first before tackling the rocky trails!
Apparently, that area is a popular spot for some of the local mountain bikers. We saw plenty of tire tracks, and even passed a rider going in the opposite direction. Although I have never once wanted a different bike than our Tumbleweed Prospectors, I was a bit envious of the guy that we passed when it came time to negotiate a few more locked gates and fences. How nice would it have been to have a lightweight carbon fiber rig to lift over those gates?
When we follow a route, we try to do it authentically so when Mark and Hana described filling up at a Carl’s Jr., I knew that I had to do so too, even if we were half a day later in arriving at the restaurant than they were. Once a sufficient number of calories had been consumed — and by sufficient, I mean a lot — we set off again to cover some more miles with only a vague destination in mind, Bajio de San Jose.
We had no idea whether there’d be a place to stay in Bajio de San Jose so when we asked a street vendor if there was a hotel in town or a place to camp and he replied no, we weren’t really surprised. The vendor then went on to ask a guy on a nearby motorbike if he knew of a spot for us and happily, that guy replied that he had a place. Actually, to tell the truth, we had very little idea what that guy actually said. He had a very strange accent and we needed our street vendor friend to “translate” for us. The gist of it was though, this guy had a place 5 minutes back up the road and that we should follow him.
Sometimes we end up with some pretty cushy accommodations. This was not one of those times. What we netted from our motorcycle-riding acquaintance was a brick shack with a concrete and dirt floor. We never look a gift horse in the mouth though so eagerly said thank you, that it would be fine. After all, the graphics on the side of the building and some of the paraphernalia we found inside indicated that it had once been a bike shop. Serendipity, right?
Under normal circumstances, we would have just unfolded our sleeping pads and slept directly on the ground in that building. When the sun set and a thousand mosquitoes arrived to feast on us, we made the wise decision to pitch our tent inside. Although not the typical way that we use it, the tent we purchased has the ability to be set up freestanding using an additional pole that we have been carrying. I’m sure it could have been pitched better if we were not racing against the flying vampires, but the tent remained standing for the night, and we got some sleep without being drained of all of our blood.
The following day was again long and tough. We had plenty more hills to climb but ultimately made it to a camping spot significantly more scenic than the place we had last pitched our tent. It’s a good thing too as we were expecting the next day to be extra tough, and it was!
Although there had been a bit of bike pushing prior to this point, we really had our fill on this day. I wish I had a way of determining what percentage of the time we actually rode the bikes as opposed to pushing them but I don’t. If I had to estimate though, at least as far as time goes, we definitely pushed the bikes more than we rode them. The riding was very cool but the pushing, not so much.
Mark and Hana’s route had them finishing the afternoon with a 1200m climb. At some point before that, both Rebecca and I had had our fill of steep hills so made an executive decision to follow an alternate dirt road with a bit less climbing. It ultimately led us down to the same place, the city of León where, after a bit of searching, we found ourselves a cheap hotel for the night.
Just one day out of Guanajuato, Rebecca and I uncharacteristically decided to take the paved highway instead of the dirt track for the final day’s ride. Even though I dislike fast traffic, we were both a bit eager to get to Guanajuato and chill for a couple of days. The highway riding went OK, and there was a large shoulder for most of it which kept us somewhat away from the cars and trucks. We even got to see the large Christ statue that Mark and Hana’s dirt track would have taken us to up close.
The final obstacle in between us and downtown Guanajuato, the gatekeeper as I like to call them, was the city’s numerous tunnels. I learned very quickly that the one thing worse than having cars and trucks rushing by you on a highway is to have cars and trucks rushing by you on a highway in a tunnel!!!
After sweating through a couple of the tunnels, we came upon a car that had pulled over on the side of the road. As we approached the vehical, the driver got out and started to walk towards us. At first, I thought that his car had broken down and that he was going to ask to use our phone to call for help. When he instead asked if we were heading downtown and then suggested that he could follow us, I wondered if maybe he didn’t know the way and that he thought we did. After a few more seconds though, I realized that what he was saying was that he could follow behind us with his hazard lights on so that we’d be safer passing through the tunnels. Why would he take the time to do that? Because he likes bicycles! How cool is that? Carlos was definitely our angel of the day. Forget all the crap you read about banditos and drug cartels… Carlos is the face of Mexico. That is what the people here are like.