Part Nineteen: The Devil’s Spine – Mezatlan to Durango

9th-10th (Mezatlan)

The ferry ride from Baja across the Sea of California was uneventful and deposited a number of other bikers and I in Mezatlan on the western coast of the main land at 10am the following morning. About six bikers spent the night spread out across the cafeteria floor watching an endless stream of subtitled movies (in Spanish, sub-titled in Spanish). Mezatlan is a bustling port city with a lot of colonial architectural flare and a charming old-town square in the Centro where wondering cyclists gravitate.

For some reason that clearly defies rational explanation, the planned route from Mazatlan is to go north-east to Durango and then cut south-east through the colonial heartland then circle southwards around the north of Mexico City. Am seemingly being carried forward to even more ridiculous and meaningless feats of daring-do. An alternative theory is that the hardcore requirement to do all of the kilometres southwards under my own steam is causing me to make odd decisions and Durango being the same latitude as La Paz, the northward journey makes some fleeting sense.

The road up into the colonial heartland of Mexico is known as ‘The Devil’s Spine’ and is a very very nasty 2,800 metre climb which winds and wobbles its way along making the lift a total of 4,000 metres from start to finish. Thereafter the central highlands can keep you at around 2,000 metres elevation for the next 1,000 kilometres or so before the descent into the south of the country. The softer-of-core would not even entertain such a foolish notion as going up this road, no doubt taking cushier coastal routes. We at buff3ysbicyclingblog, however, are made of sterner (and seemingly more stupid) stuff so off into the interior we go on the morrow.

Cyclists at a Mezatlan Cafe having Cevezas
Mezatlan Taxi

11th January (Mezatlan – Capilla) (92km)

Sea level to 1,200 metres elevation: The first day of climbing into the interior. A soft 25km start down the coast highway with the trucks and buses and then the smaller road turned east and started its inexorable rise through the afternoon. The last 10km of the day yielded a horrid 600 metres in elevation on tired legs and devoured almost two hours. I was, therefore, more than happy just after dusk to see the sign for the hamlet of Capilla and its basic small hotel.

Not Quite Argentina Yet

12th January (Capilla – Camp hut at top of hill) (75km)

Another 1,400 metres all up today: from 1,200 to 2,600 metres. Yesterday and today have been hellish climbs; possibly some of the hardest of this bicyclists illustrious career.  Endless switch backs up and up admittedly through some beautiful scenery but continual steep lifts kept your correspondent panting away in ‘granny gear’ for the bulk of the day, a stately 6km an hour being the best that I could muster grinding ever upward.  Passed north across the Tropic of Cancer (refer blurry photo).  Just on dusk, for some bizarre reason thought that it would be a good idea to see if there was any food or lodging in a small hamlet tucked away down the hillside below the road. Of course there was none of either and I had wasted precious time and quickly depleting energy going down a dirt road to discover what should have been self-evident.  There are various theories along the road as to how far it is to a restaurant and a town (these estimates vary widely as usual) so on sighting a tiny hut-cum-shop with all the appearance of being abandoned, this became my home for the night (refer photo).  With the tent tucked away out of site in the front area of the hut it was good enough yet the trucks plied up and down the road through the night engaging the engine brakes with scant regard for the possibility of there being a cleverly concealed hardcore adventure cyclist just next to the road in the front of a hut.

Tropic of Cancer at 1,700 metres elevation
Towards the top of climb
Hut Home at top of hill in the morning

13th January (Camp hut – Salto) (58km)

A last 2km climb just to get the blood flowing and am now onto a tableland with the main climbing all done. Where there had been no space next to the steeply winding road for all the preceding day there are now flat areas either side where one could have camped in relative comfort, had there been another 2km in the legs last night (which there definitely was not). This is now high plains ranch land and pickup truck with gaucho Stetsons and jeans being de rigor. This particular high plains drifter is just thankful to be able to roll for 50 yards at something over 6 km/hour for a change.

The legs that have simply been mountain devouring kryptonite-cored battering rams over the past two days are pretty well all spent now. After the short roll along the plateau having the bulk of the afternoon to rest in El Salto will be just the thing to recover.

The Hotel Demante (a real rough diamond) has its own particular charm.  At 120 pesos (US$9.20) a night and situated in the downtown area (which is oddly devoid of any other options), it’s a bargain. The room itself is basic and wood planked.  The shower is piping hot (it gets one star for that).  A sign on the back of the toilet door requests guests to use a bucket to scoop water from a large tank and take it to flush the toilet which is semi-operational (subtract star), but what the hell.  The porcelain basin is smashed in half but nobody there appears motivated enough to be bothered replacing it.  Some baby has started crying through the paper-thin walls and a TV somewhere is blaring out some crappy tele-novela.  Bliss.

I’m getting the distinct impression that not too many tourists come through this town, or stay longer than to perhaps consult the map and get the hell out.  The townsfolk are stoic gauchos in the main who appear to view a visiting cyclist with palpable thin-lipped disdain.  Semi-pouty youths (sporting lips not sufficiently thinned as yet) hang around the narrow footpaths waiting to discover just how drab and wretched their lives will turn out.  In the mean time they try to engage your correspondent in the tired old game of, ‘shout something stupid to get a reaction from the touring cyclist’. “Fuck off dickheads!” is all reply I can muster and this, or at least the tone of the delivery, appears to miraculously cut across all linguistic and cultural barriers with the desired effect.  Best not to show any disrespect when I’ve just done that ride for I am, quite obviously, super-human and  in no mood for games.  I feel emboldened and fully licensed to kick the living puss out of transgressors lacking appropriate respect right now.  The women folk in town are, by contrast, friendly and engaging and helpful as I shop and perform mimic sock pulling (my previous pairs having been lost in hotel laundry up the road somewhere).  Am getting stocked (and socked) up on road necessities (bananas, cereal snacks, water and the like).  The ‘Gorditas’ here are a lovely variant on the ever-present taco and burrito, but comprise of now familiar ingredients.  Will now join the locals and avail myself of surely one of the best inventions in the history of human-kind, the siesta.

….Post siesta I had a muscle cramp the likes of which I have never experienced before.  My left thigh clamped up with such prolonged intensity that the pain shot a wave of anxiety right up from that dark and disturbing place at the centre of one’s being where all inner-most fears of pain, death, disease, more death, torture and foreboding lurk in wait for an opportunity to serge uninvited into the consciousness laying siege to every fiber of comfort and contentedness.  This is the hellish place usually only accessible during nightmares, rare moments of moral clarity and (most relevantly), periods of intense pain.

(refer Bosch’s portrayal of Hell).

I promise to be a better person, just let’s not have me suffer through another one of those.  This very unhappy event underscores the fact that I really have dealt out a great deal of punishment to these poor old legs of mine (aka a fore mentioned ‘mountain devouring kryptonite-cored battering rams’) over the past two days and they are obviously now reminding me of that.  Perhaps one of my kryptonite implants has sprung a leak.  More recovery time required me thinks.  Odd that a cramp should strike me on entry to a town called ‘El Salta’ but there it is.

12th January (Salto – Durango) (88km)

The road to Durango is mercifully flat and I took the ‘Quota‘ (Toll road) option as opposed to the free ‘Libre‘ road. On approach to the toll gates, pushing the bike through seemed to be enough to parry the efforts of the chap who was saying something along the lines of “Spanish Spanish Spanish Pagar (Pay) Spanish Spanish”. I plead ignorance (not overly difficult to make convincing) and keep on pedaling. It’s colder up here and the air thinner but the road gently eases down to 1,800 metres at Durango.

All Economy Class on the porch of a Cafe on road to Durango

Those who don’t suffer the pain of that little ride up the hill and miss out on Durango do themselves a disservice.  The centre of the city follows the pattern of the few Mexican cities I have seen thus far on this trip in that it is cleverly designed so that one is never more than 20 metres away from a shoe shop or pharmacy.  The Centro Historico on a Saturday night is really hopping with the bars and eateries along the pedestrian boulevard next to my hotel full of the young and the trendy and the not so young and not so trendy.  I opt for a couple of bars sporting the ‘Not-Sos’ to save all of us undue embarrassment.  OK, the girls here, while very pretty, are sporting haircuts with plastered down fringes that Linda Ronstadt would have balked at even on an ill-advised hair day.  The pointy upturned shoes and plastic stetsons on the gentlemen are not to everyone’s taste but when a local troop gives it a bit of the traditional dancing in the main street it all suddenly makes perfect sense.

The Hotel Plaza Catedral is a converted monastery.  The monks are all gone now replaced by more contemplative and philosophical folk like touring cyclists.  My particular cloister directly overlooks that huge cathedral on the main square.  You really couldn’t hope for a better location.  I even have a small writing desk (refer Photo) where I can alternately rant away at my blog or whip my back with cat-o-nine tails into a bloodied shredded mess at my leisure.  It’s got to be the best hotel of the trip so far (OK, I have stayed in some dives) and well worth the splurge of US$25 a night.

Hat Dance
Cop That!
Traditional Dancing
Dancing in Durango
Plaza Catedral Hotel
Window View from Plaza Catedral Hotel Room
Whipping Desk – Plaza Catedral Hotel
More Durango beauty

The bike is now sporting a splendid new amulet purchased from one of the many local artisan shops in Malatzan (refer photo).  This one features the wide cheesy grin mask which, as most readers would be aware, has been a recurring motif in many parts of the world since ancient times.  I’m very hopeful that this will ward off any evil, drunk, inept drivers, and the idiotic and all ignorant including trucks, buses and over-sized RVs (and idiotic youths saying stupid stuff).

Just out of interest (and because I found some smiley pictures), western culture has adopted the smiley mask through the ages and up to the present day it pops up in the most unexpected places. Witness Bender of Futurama from the USA and Wallace and Grommet from the UK (the cheesiness explaining Wallace’s penchant for Wensleydale).

Bender – “Cheese it”

Contrary to popular belief, Cochise was actually no lover of cheese and reportedly didn’t have much of a sense of humour at all.

Cochise – No lover of Cheese
Gold Hat – “We don’t need no stinkin’ bad cheese”

The above ‘bad cheese’ notation is often mis-quoted as, Dobbs (Bogart): “If you’re the police, where are your badges?”: Gold Hat (Bedoya): “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!“.  An understandable error.  Here in Mexico the smiley motif has particular significance in that we all get  to smile in the face of death at some point.

Day of the Dead Smileys

This is all getting very silly and tedious now so will sign off until have rested up here in Durango and am down the road somewhere, most likely in Zacatecas, about three day’s ride to the south-east.