Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

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Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

I’ve really been missing SE Asia’s cheap scooter and motorbike rentals. There you can rent a reliable scooter for as little as $6 but here in Central America I rarely see anything under $25/day. So when my friend Candy suggested we rent a bike and split the cost, I jumped at the chance.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, MexicoWe stopped at San Cristobal’s only rental shop, Croozy Scooters, where we left a 500 peso deposit and a passport and soon were on the road. It took a couple of tries to get oriented and get out of town but we were soon on our way to Chamula, the largest Tzotzil town in Chiapas. The Tzotzils are ethnic Mayans and produce most of the weavings and clothing you find in the markets of the region and most still wear traditional dress. They’re rightfully proud of their culture and history.

The bike itself wasn’t anything to brag about — a 150cc Italka (yeah, I don’t know what that is either) chopper-style ride with the horsepower of your average lawnmower. But it got the job done, hauling both of us up increasingly steep roads and complaining every inch of the way.

The mountains here are steep — I think in some places the drops to the valley floor below were as much as 1,500 feet or more. The views were breathtaking — due both to the natural beauty and the fact that we were moving along at over 7,000 feet in altitude. It doesn’t take much to steal your breath in this rugged land. The ever-present speed bumps do their share as well.

The plan was to visit Chamula, then Chemalho and then possibly check out some ruins near Chalchihuitan. We’d then decide whether to make a run up to Pantelho or just turning south from the turnoff and heading home to make a nice loop (only lame people return the way they came). Of course, it didn’t work out as planned.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

As soon as we left San Cristobal’s sprawl (It’s a city of over 160,000 people but you’d never guess it while in the town center), we started finding these adorable road-side churches. Each tiny village seemed to have its own and all of them were tiny — most could seat a half dozen people but some were little more than shrines. Christianity here has retained many pre-Conquest elements — note the heavy use of pine needles in decoration and the ever-present “Mayan Cross” which seems to be a mix of the Christian cross and the Mayan world tree.

We’d often ride by houses where women sat outside working looms or doing needle point. Young boys would climb the steep hills with stacks of wood hanging from their backs that must have weighed more than they did.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

Chamula is only 10-15 kilometers from town, so it’s easily reached by taxi or collectivo if you don’t have your own wheels. And it’s highly recommended — the town church completely blew our minds. No photos are allowed inside (and they’re really serious about that) so all I have are memories. But what memories they are.

The floor was covered in fresh pine needles and hundreds (if not thousands) of candles provided the only light. I counted over a dozen Tzotzil families praying and lighting dozens of candles. They would heat the bottoms of tall, thin candles and stick them to the floor in rows of 16 or more. Some families had 7-8 rows of these in place and were apparently performing a set of prayers before lighting the next row.

A old healer sat next to a young Mayan woman, taking her pulse and chanting over more candles. To his side sat a bowl of eggs which I suspect were used to draw illness out of her body. One family even had a live chicken clucking quietly as they all bowed their heads and said prayers in their native tongue.

It was an amazing experience, marred only by the arrival of a tour bus that dropped off several rather insensitive tourists who would literally lean over the shoulders of worshipers to get a better view. After stepping outside and waving to the daredevils who were painting the church, we grabbed some cheap but tasty tacos (five tacos and a soda for $2), and hit the road again.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

At Chemalho, we found a busy town center with a basketball tournament in progress. Hundreds of people were gathered, cheering on their favorite teams, which seemed to range in age from 5-16. We considered visiting the cemetery on the hill but decided it would take too long and we were more interested in seeing the ruins near Chalchihuitan.

Which –of course– didn’t happen either. After turning off the main road and riding for 10 minutes, we found the town — arriving to the good-natured shouts of “Ayeeeee! Gringos!” I unknowingly parked in a collectivo stop and was greeted with continuous horn blasts and interesting hand gestures while I frantically tried to move the bike.

Realizing that day was slipping away (averaging 20-25 km/hour in the twisty roads doesn’t help) and seeing that the ruins were at least 10km down a dirt road (which one we weren’t sure), we decided to get back onto pavement. Screw Chalchihuitan anyway (at least the collectivo driver).

We never did find the turnoff to head south and complete our loop. Once you’re more than ten kilometers from San Cristobal, signs become very scarce. So after realizing we were off route and on our way to visiting Pantelho, we turned around and headed back the way we came. This allowed us to grab some photos we’d missed the first time and we made it back to the bike rental 30 minutes before closing, having traveled a whopping 150 kilometers.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

But the second try would be different, by God.

This time we chose a route that would take us east to Tenejapa and then on to Cancuc, where we’d catch a (possibly dirt) road down to Oxchuc. Oxchuc is home to a local delicacy of rat stew, which features rats that are fed various medicinal herbs and is reputed to be a healing meal. I was looking forward to adding another item to my list of “weird stuff I’ve eaten”.

Of the two different routes, I’d have to say that the first day’s ride featured more ‘cool things’ to see, but the second had much more dramatic scenery. Steep drop offs, green pines and corn fields greeted us at every turn. The homes were basic wood plank affairs or were built from cinder blocks with tin roofs but all had colorful flowers planted in their yards.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

The roads are a little rough in places. We passed at least a dozen spots in the road similar to this during the two days of riding — the rainy season really gives these steep roads a beating. Because of this and the constant speed bumps, we never really had a problem navigating such obstacles — we rarely got over 50 km/hr.

On the second day, the owner warned me not to go over 100km/hr if the bike was hot — I just laughed. That speed is suicide on these roads.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

We stopped at this nice spot under a pine tree for a picnic lunch, enjoying white wine, goat cheese, crackers and olives while a cool breeze blew in from the valley below. The Mayans who came walking down the trail from their houses up the hill were more than little surprised to see us lounging trailside and most pretended that we didn’t exist. Except for the drunk guy — he wanted to be best friends and we had to leave a bit earlier than we’d have liked.

Photo Essay: On Two Wheels in the Mountains of Chiapas, Mexico

Cancuc sat on a high ridge with views in most every direction. There was a small town square where we sent several young boys into giggling fits with our offer of sharing almonds — they don’t see many tourists around here. Next to the square was a large gathering of people listening to a political discussion of some kind. They lined the street for a hundred feet or more but I resisted the urge to take a photo: Chiapas is the birthplace of the Zapatista movement –which hoped to overthrow the Mexican government– and I thought they might be a bit camera-shy.

So we saddled up and found the road to Oxchuc, home of the sopa de raton and headed out. Only to be stopped 100 feet later when we found the road was blocked due to construction.

We road home the same way we came. Lame.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Moses May 9, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Dear Wes,

I really enjoyed your blog today. Thank you so much.

Lisa
lisamosesgallery.com

Reply

Lisa Moses May 9, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Dear Wes,

I really enjoyed your blog today. Thank you very much.

Lisa
lisamosesgallery.com

Reply

Nomadic Chick May 9, 2012 at 8:37 pm

As always Wes, vivid descriptions that send the reader there with you. :)

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Greg Summerhayes May 9, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Hi Wes, really enjoying reading of your travels. We are toying with another trip to Vietnam, but this year we are content with a trip to Central Australia where it has rained 3 years in a row so the desert is a wonderful picture. That will probably only happen once in a lifetime so we are off. Cheers to you Greg and Maggie

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Laura May 10, 2012 at 10:36 am

Wes, You’re making me rethink my next trip plans…What gorgeous images and your descriptions–as always–put me in the moment, the church, and the bike with you and your friend.

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cynthia May 10, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Great pics. The colorful little church is awesome. :-)

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Karen May 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm

What a DREAM! (Except the 150cc part.) As a rider myself, I would LOVE to do this, Wes! Thank you for allowing my vicarious trip!

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wes May 11, 2012 at 11:14 am

Glad you enjoyed it! The 150cc bit wasn’t tooo bad, as you really don’t want to travel very fast on these roads. They do love speed bumps and they’re rarely signed…

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Lisa @chickybus May 20, 2012 at 7:05 am

What a cool experience you had there. Looks great! I was there several years ago on a day tour and loved it. (Wild stuff goes on inside that church, huh?) The way you did it seems like a real adventure!

I think it was smart not to take photos. They are very strict about it there. I’ve heard some crazy stories re: what happens if they catch you…

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wes June 5, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I’ve heard the same. And I totally respect their choice. We’re lucky they let our gawking asses in at all.

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Megan Jones June 4, 2012 at 4:27 pm

What beautiful photos. Especially of the churches. The colors are so vibrant, I can’t imagine what they looked like when you were standing right in front of them. That is too bad about that bus full of tourists. They really give a bad name to us travelers. I wish more people could show restraint and respect when visiting other cultures.

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wes June 5, 2012 at 11:51 am

It’s a lovely place and even lovelier people. Really can’t wait to get out on another ride.

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Jonathan Look, Jr. June 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Looks kike two wheels is a great way to see the countryside. Looking forward to an outing soon.

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