Emily Bei Cheng and a group of friends spend the Christmas holiday bike touring in México. With a planned route from México City to Oaxaca, Emily reflects on why bike touring feels like a more genuine way to engage with the people and places they encounter along the way.
“¿Cómo te llamas?” a shy voice whispers behind my ear. The boy giggles and runs off before I can answer. It’s Christmas Day and the five of us cyclists seek refuge from the midday sun in a hole in the wall restaurant in Tomatepec. A layer of dust coats our legs and we wipe the dirt unibrows from our faces as we savor spoonfuls of pozole, a dish traditionally served during holidays. “Soup is a big thing in México,” Pam explains, “My mom always had a warm pot of soup ready at home.”
I look over and see the boy whispering furiously, huddled over a phone with three other kids. Suddenly the phone announces in a loud, robotic voice, “cómo te llamas en ingles es: what is your name?” The children burst into sheepish laughter. Pam explains to the children in Spanish that our names are Pamela, Emily, Kat, Ben, and David. The children erupt in giggles again. They thought our American names would be weird and difficult to pronounce. To their surprise, our names are as “normal” as theirs!
I cherish these small moments of connection. I’ve traveled to México several times before, either to tourists hubs or to remote places. When I climbed Pico de Orizaba and scuba dived in Cozumel, there were few opportunities to interact with locals. In this special way, bikepacking allows us to appreciate how the people of México live their authentic lives. We pedal through quiet mountainside towns like Quetzalapa that link up to bustling cities like Tlapa de Comonfort. We say “¡buenas tardes!” to the farmer in his agave field and we are welcomed to a town breakfast on Christmas morning. Taking the route less traveled, we are a needle threading through the fabric of a rich culture.
The morning is off to a rough start as we miss several turns before pausing at a cafe. We all had sleepless flights the night before. Ben orders a coffee with “quatro” shots, to which the shocked barista exclaims, “Que?!” Getting all the wrong turns out of our system and the caffeine finally in, we power up the first of many climbs through the Sierra Madre del Sur. The morning light bathes the hills and farmland in an orange glow as we pedal up dirt double track. It was rideable though, at times, burly for my 40mm tires. When we stop for a break, we notice the little creatures sharing the trail with us: yellow butterflies, grasshoppers, and a spider spinning its web between the arms of a cactus. We also learn the hard way that our legs become feasts for gnats if we stop for too long.
As we pedal through the countryside, Pam shares how she feels a deep connection to her heritage as she rides into her home state of Guerrero. At one rest stop Pam tells us she talked to a farmer in the fields who asked if we were touring. Pam replied “yes,” to which the farmer responded, “Well, I’m working.” She recalls, “That interaction was a humbling reminder that we come from a place of privilege to be bikepacking here.”
Our path links up small towns, many with fewer than 300 inhabitants. Some streets are lined with rows of colorful papel piquado, ubiquitous in México. I also notice how every town, however small, has a church and town square; people value their community spaces here. Even the tiny mountain town of Xixila at 5,750’ has a giant pavilion where children can play and be shielded from the harsh sun. Another common sight: houses with backyard pens for sheep and chickens, or burros and horses. As we ride to the town outskirts, we see many rooftops covered in sun-drying maize.
The towns have their idiosyncrasies, too. Papalutla is known for its ecotourism swimming pools, and we dive right in with our bibs still on when we arrive there to camp. As we clench our brakes to slow our descent into Olinalá, I notice that families use ATVs as a primary mode of transport to power up the steep streets here.
In each town we stop at a tienda to refuel. Seeing rows of snacks with government-mandated labels “Exceso Sodio” and “Exceso Azúcares” feels like scoring the jackpot for us salt-starved, sugar-craving cyclists. Pam buys a Coca Cola to drink, but also to provide cooling relief for her bug bites. She rolls the chilled bottle over her swollen, bumpy legs and jokes, “We have a disease … it’s called bikepacking.”
At one snack stop David reaches for a 24oz container of yogurt from the back of the fridge when the shopkeeper waves his arms and interjects in Spanish. Pam translates, “He says that’s not yogurt. It’s crema for tacos.”
“Oh!” David says, abashed, and returns his “yogurt” as the five of us howl in laughter. “Close call,” I say. David later confesses he already ate a whole container of the same thing yesterday.
Crema incident aside, the food and hospitality are highlights of bikepacking through México. We sample the flavors of the region, stopping at roadside fruit stands for fresh oranges, and eating 10 peso tacos fresh from a massive pot of slow-cooking carnitas. “My ratio has been one taco per fall,” Ben jokes, referring to all the falls he’s taken on the steep dirt roads with his relatively skinny tires.
In Quetzalapa we hope to eat a real meal but the town is empty. Pam asks a local who instructs us to find “the last house at the south end of town, right by the main road … that house will have food.” We arrive to find a fence with a drooping, sun-bleached banner advertising potato chips. We are skeptical this is a restaurant, but we push our bikes up the gate anyway. We hear radio music and the sizzling of something cooking as we approach. Ducking under a curtain of tree branches, we step through a portal into a surprise world: a shaded outdoor restaurant where fresh corn tortillas are cooking on an iron sheet. Pam tells us her grandma’s kitchen was just like this: a literal a hole in the wall with a cast iron sheet on top and a wood fire below. We enjoy a delicious meal of carne con chile colorado with corn tortillas.
On Christmas morning we roll into the small town of Papalutla which translates to “the place where butterflies abound.” We stop at the church to take a closer look at the stone buttresses and we are greeted by a few townspeople who welcome us to a hot breakfast. A woman tells us to help ourselves from two massive iron pots that are heated by wood fires, one with hominy soup, one with sweet coffee. The pozole is leftover from midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and it’s a tradition to reheat the leftovers for Christmas Day. They refuse payment or donations, so we do our best to express our gratitude before leaving incredibly well nourished.
Halfway to Oaxaca, we reach a critical moment in our journey. For the past day a decision weighed on my mind: whether to continue onward or take the only logical bailout point at Tlapa de Comonfort, the one city with a major bus station for the rest of the route. I know I have it in me to suffer and endure, but I remind myself that this trip is not about proving myself. I think through our trip planning spreadsheet where we noted the unknowns in bold, red text: “big day, questionable road quality” and “possible washed out road??” and “two land conflict zones, do not travel at night!” We are aware of three land disputes on our route between San Martin and Yutanduchi de Guerrero, and I’m especially nervous about holding the group back and putting others’ safety at risk if we get benighted.
I gaze at my legs that are so swollen from an allergic reaction to the gnat bites that even standing hurts, and consider how sleep deprived I am on top of that. At Tlapa de Comonfort, Pam and I opt to take the shortcut and fast track to Oaxaca via bus, while the trio forges onward. I admit I’m a little bummed I can’t say I rode from “México City to Oaxaca”, but the depth of this trip can’t be captured by this single statement, anyway. There is so much we have already experienced in our journey halfway there.
By the time our night bus arrives in Oaxaca, I’ve already planned a solo bikepacking trip into the Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, and I head out that very day. Free of time constraints, I can afford a leisurely pace to soak in the scent of pine needles and take selfies with all the giant agave.
Alone, I am grateful to have stories to keep me company. I listen to an audiobook as I climb, and it feels like a living companion. Briefly, I appreciate how we are all our own living stories. I think of each local we’ve met, and the glimpse we have into their lives. I think of Katrin, David, and Ben who are completing this chapter as they finish the route to Oaxaca.
When the five of us reunite in Oaxaca just before New Year’s Eve, we swap stories as we eat squash blossom memelas from a street food vendor. There were stressful moments: being chased by dogs, swollen knees, lots of ibuprofen, and a 1,000ft hike-a-bike… but it was balanced with moments of kindness and connection. Katrin recounts playing fútbol with a group of boys in the church courtyard of Zoyatlan, and how the kids gleefully played a game of “drag David over the slippery courtyard tiles”. In the town square in Yutanduchi de Guerrero, Ben heard a girl sing the most beautiful song in Mixtec, the indigenous language commonly spoken in these parts.
The stories they share are a testament to México’s vibrant culture and the kindness of its people, but also the unavoidable challenges that come with taking a path far less traveled. For now, we swap cycling shoes for sandals, ready to shake out those legs and relax. We’re stoked to still have another week together in Oaxaca. First thing’s first though … we finally get a full eight hours of sleep, and it feels damn good.