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back on the bike

My stay in the area of Mexico City and Puebla has turned out to be a very extended one. By the time I ride out of Puebla, heading south towards San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, it is almost two months since I first arrived in Mexico City and I have only ridden the 130 kilometres to Puebla during that time.

Leaving Puebla is not hard.

Mexico is full of abandoned building projects. I like the scuptural steel forms of this example, spotted while passing through a village just outside Puebla.

The day is long and the road unwinds into a arid valley bounded by dry rocky hills covered with mesquite and Joshua trees in flower. The nopal, too, is blooming, each paddle fringed with bright red blossoms while the agave cactus send giant spears shooting into the sky, green shiny heart shaped pods, bursting into bright yellow clusters of flowers.

Can anyone tell me if these really are mesquite flowers?

Suddenly, as I come around a long curve a hill comes into view thick with towering columns of tall straight cactus.

Incredible vegetation.

Cactus valley.

The day is hot and I have to rest in the afternoon under a rare shade tree and it occurs to me that maybe I have done this all back to front, traversing the mountains in the north in winter and now heading towards the desert peninsula moving into high summer.

When I finally find a place to camp – to the side of the road hidden from view of passing traffic by a long mound of earth – I eat a left over piece of Spanish tortilla, cooked the night before in Puebla.

The stars appear one by one and it is so long since I have camped out in the open that they have shifted and the sky appears unfamiliar to me. Orion is low in the north-west. In the south, hovering just above the horizon the Southern Cross appears for the first time on my journey. I watch it and during the night when I wake it is still there in the same position – the axis the world is spinning on – but I can’t locate Paleides and Taurus in the new alignment and I am bereft. I wake again just before dawn and Orion, too, has vanished.

In the morning I continue to ride among incredible cactus. Before long a mountain ranges looms ahead.

Fat cactus.

An impressive cactus tree... I wish I knew the names of these plants.

I'm heading towards those there hills...

I wake on the second morning out of Puebla having camped by the side of the road, just out of direct line of the car headlights and so hidden by darkness, but exposed once the sun has risen, clearly visible with a simple sideways glance. I am up quickly and gone without breakfast. Thorn bushes cling, tearing at my bare legs, as I push my bike back to the road; everything hard rough surfaces, spines and prickles.

A few kilometres brings me to Teotitlan where I must choose between heading south into the heart of Oaxaca or east towards Vera Cruz. The eastern route is slightly more direct and, with my visa clock ticking, I decide to go that way. Turning off the more travelled route I begin, without preamble, to climb. The sun rises behind the mountain range I am ascending and so I am, at least initially, sheltered from its rays.

Rising, slowly, out of the desert valley, I watch the mountain range on the other side. The road winds higher and higher, snaking in and out of the folds of the mountain ridge. I top a crest and the road follows the top of the ridge for a while rolling up and down before rising steeply again. The mountain tops are less barren than the valley and lower slopes and there is some tree cover but now the sun has risen the heat is intense.

Looking back down into the valley during the long climb upwards.

I drop down into a another valley to face another long brutal ascent to the township of Huautla – a grim settlement strung out along a ridge, tin shacks spilling down the precipitous slopes. People stare – there are no smiles here – the atmosphere is uncomprehending and hostile. I feel like I might be the first tourist to ever stray this way but I discover later that the place is famous for its magic mushrooms and sees its fair share of foreign visitors.

Huautla - a sprawling ugly town strung along a mountain ridge. This one of the only places were I have felt genuinely uncomfortable simply riding down the main street but maybe the 30 kilometre climb in 35cxvx degree heat was a contributing factor.

I rest in an internet café, venture to the tiny market behind the square to buy supplies and go on. Incredibly, after a brief descent, I start to climb again, up and up.

The sun sets over mountains such as I have never seen before, lofty peaks marching endlessly into an deep blue haze. I camp just outside a small village in another of those half built construction projects, the only level ground to be seen – hanging over the edge of the deep valley.

Sun goes down over the mountains at the end of a hard day's climbing.

When I wake, I finally begin to descend, speeding through villages, barely awake, the inhabitants – poor folk in indigenous dress – wary and amazed to see a gringa tourist whizzing past on a bicycle at dawn.

I drop out of the sky and into jungle. The world has been remade over night, here the air is warm and damp and multitude of unknown birds scream in the trees. I stop to watch black birds with yellow tails tend to their Christmas stocking nests, hanging from the trees, stuffed with hidden treats. Two of the raucous bickering birds tumble towards the ground locked together, breaking apart just before hitting the ground.

I continue descending but I soon stop again, amazed by a toucan which takes off in flight from a tree beside the road before landing on another tree lower on the slope. I watch until the bird takes off again chased by a shrieking smaller bird. With its massive clumsy yellow bill, how the creature manages to stay airborne is a complete mystery to me.

Pure jungle magic but hot, oh, so hot!

And on the other side of the mountains, a humid sunrise...

It is is a different world here.

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