"Try this one," the manager of the cigar factory said. "It's grown from Cuban seed." We inspected the offering, and shook our heads at the price. It was the first day of our attempt to traverse Mexico by mountain bike, and this little cigar workshop was an unlikely detour. We'd pedaled only 20 miles when we were lured in.
"These are more economical," the manager told us, pointing to another stash. "They're also very big." We nodded in agreement, and Walter Bishop, the leader of our nine-member crew, pulled out his wallet. "We'll celebrate with these when we reach the Pacific," he promised – not that we needed the extra incentive.
I'd done 10 bike trips in Mexico – many of them with Walter – and every time I looked at a map I thought, I've got to ride across. A transcontinental ride is, in fact, an iconic challenge for cyclists: The journey always has a distinct start and finish line: the oceans. And in North America, the only continent besides Australia where nations stretch from coast to coast, such traverses have taken on great symbolism.
Mexico offers some advantages for the cross-country cyclist: a vast number of undeveloped backwoods roads, and a shape – narrow at the bottom, wide at the top – that makes the trip a relatively low-mileage affair. We'd be able to do the 400 miles – hopefully all on dirt – in about seven days. The most direct route is from Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast, into the Sierra Madre, through Oaxaca's capital, and down to the surfing hot spot of Puerto Escondido, on the Pacific. But several tourists had been attacked by banditos in northern Oaxaca in recent months, so Walter – a 56-year-old Mexican David Crosby look-alike who's been cycling his home country for more than 20 years – suggested a more circular route: Ride south along the Veracruz coast, then inland to an abandoned railbed that runs south parallel to a highway to the west coast oil-refining town of Salina Cruz.
After packing away our cigars, our two strongest riders, Edgar and Mike, spinning instructors from the Mexican city of Durango, took off. The other five of us – all friends of Walter and all experienced cyclists – tried to keep up. I was riding with Choco, a 30-year-old dentist, also from Durango, and Tim, my buddy from Wisconsin (the only other gringo besides me). Miguel, a graphic designer, tagged behind with Walter, followed by a support van and driver.
Despite the sag wagon, this wasn't your typical bike tour: There would be no gourmet meals or satiny bed sheets. We would camp out and eat at roadside stands after pedaling a solid 50 miles a day. My only real concern was dehydration, which had incapacitated me on my last Mexico bike trip. Continuing south from the cigar factory, we pedaled through reedy terrain, rolling into thick rain forest. By the end of the first day we'd reached the town of Tlacotalpan, tucked into the delta of the Papaloapan River. The locals were setting up for a feast; the church was decked in colorful ribbons and images of saints. "Is it a religious festival?" I asked.
Walter looked around. Small stalls lined the town square, centered around a mechanical bull. "Now, yes," he said. "But by midnight, it's gonna be pretty pagan."
Godlessness arrived in a one-liter Pepsi bottle served by a kindly lady who had repurposed her fabric shop as a bar for the fete. The bottles, about a dollar each, were filled with "coco toro" – half coconut milk and half cane alcohol. In the town square locals were challenging both the mechanical bull and a person wearing a bull costume made of wire and Christmas lights, laced with bottle rockets and Roman candles. A day of bike riding and a liter of poison had significantly diminished my reflexes, and I inadvertently put myself in the direct line of fire. A sparkling projectile glanced off my leg. Luckily, I was well anesthetized.
When we awoke the next morning I felt surprisingly fresh. We wound into the sharply rising Sierra de los Tuxtlas mountain range, passing ancient volcanic craters and ridges of hardened igneous rock. Then we veered inland, toward the crossroads city of Acayucan. From there we would hit Highway 185, the two-lane thoroughfare that parallels the old railbed.
Our first big climb came just after we turned west. We huffed our way into the Tuxtlas, passing Lake Catemaco, the biggest of a series of crater lakes. The afternoon temperature soared into the 90s, and we had a killer 2,000-foot ascent ahead of us. Every few miles a tiny tienda, where local families earned extra pesos by selling Coke and sangria-flavored soda pop, beckoned.
When we finally topped the Tuxtlas the middle of Mexico stretched out before us, oscillating toward what looked like a fixed horizon – an exhilarating view well worth our hard work. We picked our way back down on dirt trails and on the trackbed. It was a long day of riding: 68 overheated miles of gravel, dirt, and – to our chagrin – tarmac, in several spots where the tracks were impassable. The key to riding the tropics is to skip the middle of the day. But since we had limited time, that was impossible. As a Southern Californian, I'm used to high temperatures, and the following morning I pushed off energetically. Despite downing several bottles of water, however, I quickly got sluggish. I'd stopped sweating – I had heat exhaustion.