The Worst Best Mountain Bike Tour in San Cristobal de las Casas
I was on hour six of what was supposed to be a four-hour biking tour through San Cristobal de Las Casas and its surrounding mountains. In my head, I debated if/how I could tell my tour guide that I quit. I simply had no energy left in me and I was going to take a taxi back to the casita where I was staying. I had come to Mexico partially to distract myself from my ongoing divorce and partially to find inspiration in order to get some much-needed writing done. Neither of which were being accomplished on this seemingly never-ending bike ride with no music, no podcasts, no media at all to distract me. I desperately wanted out of this situation and was so mad about myself for not quitting when I had had the chance.
I had contemplated the idea of abandoning the tour before we even started when Joel, the guide informed me that I wasn’t getting on and off the bike properly and I spent at least 15 minutes practicing while we waited for the two other tourists who would be joining us (why can I never remember that nothing in Mexico starts on time). I had woken up at 7 and rushed out of my apartment to walk 45 minutes in order to be at the start of the tour by 8 am, already out of breath and only having nibbled on a small piece of sweet bread for breakfast (rookie mistake).
I contemplated quitting after the first 30 minutes of biking when we took our first rest before we had even left the city.
Ok, I thought, I have google maps, I can find my way back and drop off the bike before retreating home.
But I pushed on, not wanting to squander this opportunity, the only tour I booked in my month-long stay in San Cris. I reasoned with myself that my problem was not eating a proper breakfast and that’s why I had to push my bike up the hill, while others seemed to breeze through to the top.
When we finally made our way to lunch at about 2 pm (the fourth hour and the supposed end of our tour), I was starving. Lucky for me, despite only having two lunch options the food did not disappoint. We feasted on the most delicious chicken tinga quesadilla, with fresh spicy salsa, and a mug of coffee. If you know me, I’m a tea drinker exclusively. I can’t handle the jitters and upset stomach that coffee seems to give me. But in most of Latin America, your option for tea is chamomile or lemon, neither of which has a trace of caffeine. Not wanting to stand out, I joined the other 3 in drinking coffee. This coffee was magical. I barely had to add any sugar to the smoothest coffee I have ever enjoyed. It warmed up my soul without giving me any of the jitters or upset stomach that I had feared. I also bought an extra bottle of water had long since drunk through the two I brought. Now fully fed, quenched, and caffeinated I was ready to get back on that bike and ride all the way to San Cristobal. I was going to be able to keep up now, ride back to the start with the best of them.
I’ll give you one guess as to what happened next. Not much further after lunch, I fell over, I had to get off my bike and walk it repeatedly while the others cruised. At times I didn’t even get on my bike when there was a seemingly flat road because I knew that just around the corner there would be another hill. But at least we were going back, the end was not in literal sight but surely all that time going uphill would have to pay off with our return (eventually, right?). It didn’t seem to, and while I was walking my bike up a steep hill, at which all my compatriots were already at the top, I saw it. A magical thing. A bus that said El Centro. I could get on that bus, I could just drop the bike right here and get on the bus to town. I could find my way back to my temporary home for a nice hot shower.
But at that moment I saw Joel walking towards me and my resolve faltered. The bus passed me by and I continued to huff and puff up the hill until I met Joel, not even halfway to the top. While still riding his own, he took my bike from me and my embarrassment met its limit.
I apologized profusely and to which he simply responded “tranquila, calma, respira”.
When we reached the top of the hill, he told me to sit in the shade, drink some water, and rest. Too tired to argue, I did what I was told. When I put my bottle down, he said, back on the bike. I eyed him suspiciously.
“One more hill”, he said in Spanish, “go down this hill and use the momentum to go up the next one.”
“Ok” was the only response I could muster.
And I did. I felt the wind in my face carrying with it the sweet and earthy scent of pine trees and evaporating rain on concrete. I remembered why some people (in some cases I) had actually preferred to explore the world from the vantage of two wheels, that was until my momentum could not take me any further. But Joel, stayed next to me the whole time, guiding my pace, telling me to take it slow, to stay calm, and always to breathe. Just at the moment when I thought I would fall over, he put his hand on my lower back, and like I was a goddamn toddler, he pushed me the rest of the way up the hill. One more hill turned into two, then three, but each time he pushed me forward “poco a poco”.
When we finally made it back, the very nice couple who has outpaced me the whole time offered me a ride in their car. Surprising even myself, I told them that I’d prefer to walk. I wanted nothing less but I couldn’t let this couple who had bought me my lunch and waited patiently at the top of many hills to carry me any further. I looked at my phone which by this point was at 3% battery life and realized that I would have to try and recall the 45-minute walk back to my Airbnb in this city that I had known for less than a week. I could have taken a taxi (which costs about $2 USD to go anywhere in the city), but I thought if I walk at least part of the way, I can reward myself with pizza from a local place that I had heard was the best you could get in San Cristobal.
I was able to retrace my steps for a while. Here was the corner where the woman in the tight pencil skirt ran past me, so I must turn right here. There is the bridge I crossed, keep going straight. And like so many things in life it worked, for a time, until I became hopelessly lost. I wandered around thinking I could just grab any one of the hundred taxis passing me by. But I wanted that pizza, goddammit, and I think I was just the slightest bit emboldened and drunk off the mild success of my bicycling adventure in which I did not quit. So I couldn’t quit here goddamit.
But being in one of the rainiest areas of Mexico during the rainiest season, I knew it was only a matter of time before the skies parted. I reasoned with myself that at the first drop of rain I was going to give up and hail a cab. Of course, moments later, it began to sprinkle. But at that same moment, I turned a corner and saw the top of a church that I maybe kind of recognized. There were so many large churches that I couldn’t be sure, but I decided to push onwards, my curiosity wouldn’t let me quit now. I owed it to myself to see if my innate sense of direction had somehow led me back to the proper path, didn’t I?
And there was the same graffiti I had read earlier, written on the short wall surrounding the church, demanding legal and safe abortions (which only a few weeks ago had been legalized in Mexico, while back in my home country, Texas was essentially making it illegal). Truly emboldened, as the rain began to pour, my only response was to grab my raincoat that I had carried in my very heavy backpack all through the bike tour and put it on. God, I have never needed a hot shower so much in my life, but maybe I could let the cold rain clean my muddied shoes and socks. I would keep taking steps forward, poco a poco. I passed landmark after landmark (hotel arrecife de corral, café waffles, a lavandería whose logo was a pair of cartoon underpants) until I finally saw it, el punto, the pizzeria of my dreams, with a line outside of it and everything. I had made it, it was all going to be worth it.
Until I realized that the line was people waiting for the bus, taking shelter under the jut of the tin roof over the entryway to the closed pizzeria. I debated taking a taxi but I was too close now to bother. As the rain poured harder and harder I popped my head into a carniceria that I had eyed many times before but had always been in the middle of other errands to want to carry around raw meat. I bought cheese, two steaks, and 4 sausages. I was unsure of what I was going to make on my one-burner stove but certain that I would not go back empty-handed.
That’s the strange thing about San Cristobal de las Casas, you start walking on a sidewalk that has been sturdy under your feet only for it to disappear into nothingness or be blocked by a giant pole, or have a car parked on it, or (my least favorite) be covered in bags upon bags of rotting trash. So there is nothing to do but run across to the other side of the sidewalk and hope you have better luck. And you almost always do, for a while, until the process invariably repeats itself. And if it’s raining you’re certain to step in the water that has been pooling closest to the sidewalk’s edge, something that I can’t recommend but did in fact have the effect of removing mud from my shoes while soaking me to the bone. But there are so many shops to pop into, so many funny and interesting signs to read, so many taxis to ignore, that I never have regretted going for a walk in San Cris and seeing where it takes me. And finally, upon arriving at my temporary home, instead of immediately stripping off my clothes and taking a much-needed shower, I was so inspired by my journey that I sat down and wrote this essay instead.