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Jennifer Murdoch wasn’t sure what to expect before her first bicycle tour. Find out why she doesn’t regret taking the plunge and exploring the diverse sights and sounds of Oaxaca State, Mexico.
A Tour of Adventure and Perspective
By Jennifer Murdoch
As a 28-year-old woman with little touring experience beyond a few social weekend rides, my plan to embark on a three-and-a-half week solo cycling tour around Oaxaca State, Mexico made some people nervous. It turns out that getting my bicycle to the starting point was the most vexing part. A holiday embargo on bicycles enforced by every American airline as well as Mexicana meant hunting for a last-minute international ticket into Mexico City and then bussing south to Oaxaca. But by the beginning of my tour, I was exhilarated by the new sense of freedom I had exploring very unfamiliar territory on my bicycle.
The state of Oaxaca, located on the south-western coast of Mexico, offers cyclists spectacularly diverse landscapes, terrain, flora and climate. Winter is the dry season there, so throughout my tour, which extending through both Christmas and New Years, days were rain-free.
On Boxing Day, I left the narrow, busy, pinãta-filled streets of Oaxaca City, the inland state capital, for the quiet, well-maintained and primarily two-lane highways of rural Oaxaca. There, I was greeted by vast cornfields drenched in hot sun, cows and bulls tended to by Mexican cowboys, donkeys and sheep grazing freely by highway shoulders and tall cactuses against a backdrop of dry rocky hills. Further along, I came up against a long ascent of nearly 4,000 feet into the towering Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. The reward at the top of the climb was the tiny resort town of San José del Pacifico, where I took a well-deserved rest and enjoyed a breathtaking sunrise between mountain peaks covered in lush green pine forest.
The 9,000-foot descent from the top of the mountains to sea level was electrifying. When the pavement was smooth, I flew around the highway’s banked curves, which traversed mountain after mountain. At times the highway crossed a mountain ridge, creating near-vertical drops on either side. In San José del Pacifico, the climate had been brisk and windy. As I descended, I was surrounded by a tropical rainforest of banana and coconut trees, gigantic palms and bushes covered in enormous pink flowers. There were no cactuses here. Instead, streams, rivers and constant bird calls resonated amidst dense green. The humidity changed from dry to saturated over the course of four hours of cycling. Family-run palapas, which dot the highways of Oaxaca, provided welcome shady rest spots in the hot weather. I had a pop or freshly-squeezed jugo, stocked up on cold bottled water, socialized and enjoyed a hearty protein-rich Mexican meal for around 30 pesos, or $2.50 CAD.
I celebrated the New Year on the beaches of the small trendy town of Zipolite before cycling north along the coast and then inland, back over the mountains toward Oaxaca City. Throughout the state, beautiful roadside shrines adorned with freshly-laid flowers stood for the many victims of driving accidents. Despite these reminders of potential danger, the highways seemed to offer substantially more risk for motorists than cyclists. Oaxacan drivers are remarkably considerate of the large number of bicycles and motorcycles on roads and highways. As I took a photograph on the side of a mountain highway one day, a friendly Mexican stopped to pass me a fresh, ice-cold bottle of water through his car window – a gesture that represents the goodwill of the Oaxacan people I encountered throughout my tour.
The greatest threat I faced while cycling in Oaxaca was not motorists, but untrained, unscrupulous dogs that would periodically chase me down streets and across highways, barking and snarling as I peddled as fast as I could. Yet with all their torment, I was never harmed; they were more bark than bite. I also cycled through four highway police checkpoints during my tour. Outfitted in full camouflage, carrying large rifles and hiding their faces behind black bandanas with only a narrow revealing strip to allow for eyesight, I’m not sure the federales quite knew what to make of me as I cycled up in full spandex attire. Yet at each checkpoint, the friendly officers let me pass without asking for ID or searching my panniers – apparently I didn’t look like the type to traffic cocaine around Mexico.
Jennifer Murdoch, a software developer from Victoria, BC, has made cycling an integral part of her lifestyle and social network by commuting to work, participating in biathlons and multi-day rides, touring and organizing community cycling-centric events. Her greatest sense of satisfaction, however, comes from getting other women involved in recreational cycling.
View the photo album of Jennifer’s trip here.