Into the Tropics

All of a sudden, it’s got very Tropical! Since passing Dallas, the landscape had been semi-arid with little in the way of trees, but plenty of hardy bushes and cacti. The cacti came in all shapes and sizes, from iconic tall cacti

to cacti with a bumper prickly pear crop

to cacti grown commercially

and even cacti planted as a wall!

The fields of corn had continued into Mexico, but now it was being grown for tortillas rather than for animal feed or bio-fuel. Even the smallest of villages I passed through had a small shop with a clunky noisy tortilla machine, with dough being fed in at one end and a constant stream of tortillas appearing on a conveyor belt at the other end.

But in less than a day, the wide open spaces

were replaced by crowded growth

The fields of corn

replaced by fields of sugar cane

and the ubiquitous limes that were served with every dish – here’s where they come from

The cacti was gone too – replaced by banana trees

Every available patch of ground seemed to have something growing – very profusely and very green

Even the full width shoulder at the side of the road had succumbed to the green weeds that were growing with frightening voraciousness

The trees are larger, which is a good thing as the shade was a welcome relief from the strong sunshine

Even the roadkill has gone tropical – a snake over a metre long – so big that cars were driving around it!

There are still butterflies, but they had changed from the yellows, oranges and browns to an exotic black and electric blue-green

As you might guess from the amount of green, it has also got noticeably damper – either as water on its way up in humid air or on its way down as rain. But the temperature of the rain is just right – cool but not cold – so it too provides a welcome relief from the heat. While the increased heat and humidity make the cycling harder, it’s good to have a change, and it finally feels like I’m in the tropics!

Slightly disapointingly (but hardly surprisingly) all this didn’t happen when I crossed the Tropic of Cancer (latitude 23 degrees north) on the 11th of September. It happened after two days of downhill on the 26th and 28th of September. This descent was from the central high plateau that I’d been on for the previous 3 weeks, down to the lowlands running along the Caribbean coast.

Unfortunately it was wet and cloudy for much of this descent, so I couldn’t just fly down, and I missed out on much of the view

Fortunately I caught up with a truck that was going at just the right speed for me to follow. This meant I got plenty of space from overtaking vehicles and didn’t have to worry about the poor visibility.

Or the narrow tunnels!

The view I really wanted to see was that of Pico de Orizaba. Not only is this a dormant volcano with glaciers, it’s the highest mountain in Central and South America. I’d seen it two days earlier as I approached Huamantla, looking a bit like mount Fuji, but at 80 miles away, I couldn’t see its full grandeur. So I was looking forward to the view from just 10 miles as the main road passed its southern flank. Here’s what I was hoping for

and here’s what I got:

That’s mountain weather for you!

But back to the cycling – an added advantage of the lower altitude is more oxygen.

This was what one of my water bottles looked like at the top:

And at the bottom:

The 27th was spent in the city of Orizaba picking up a replacement security key for my wheels. After losing the original one, I had been unable to change the inner tube on the rear wheel, so by now had a record 6 patches on it. Not all of these were air tight, so the tyre needed pumping up on an almost daily basis.

There were many people involved with the delivery of this replacement key. Firstly, a big thank you goes to Sue for sending out the replacement part. Another big thank you to Chris Minto for using his contacts to find someone who only lived 5 blocks from my planned route. In a country the size of Mexico, this is truly remarkable! The biggest thanks goes to Mundo and his wife Estefania:

Not only for being there to receive the part, but also for welcoming me into their home and giving me a place to stay for the night. Not only that, they also gave me a Mexican national football team top. I’m now feeling like a proper honorary Mexican!

With the hub key I was finally able to replace a very battle weary inner tube

Thanks also to Orizaba’s premier bike shop AST Bikes, who helped me out with internet access to find Mundo and Estefania’s home, and a track pump to get the new inner tube up to maximum pressure with ease.

Crossing the Tropic of Cancer was the second line of latitude with an astronomical significance that I´d crossed so far this trip. The first was, of course, the Arctic Circle – the most southerly point where the Sun can be seen for the whole of the longest day in June. The Tropic of cancer is where the Sun is directly overhead on the same day.

More than being able to say that “I’ve cycled from the Arctic to the Tropics”, this gives a unique perspective on the relationship between the tilt of the planet Earth, and it´s nearest star, the Sun. The sort of perspective you don´t get from going “around the world” (which, it could be said, from an extra-terrestrial perspective, everyone does every day). Another sign of my heading south across a curved surface is what is happening to my view of constellations familiar from my childhood. Constellations such as the Plough, familiar because they were always there, high up in the night sky. But I´m now seeing less and less of them as they appear to gradually sink towards the horizon.

The next line of latitude with planetary significance will be the Equator, the point where the Sun is directly overhead on the March and September equinox. But that will not be until December – or even next year at the rate I´m going now! 😦

Finally, a few other experiences of note from my last days before descending into the Tropics:

It might have been over a week since Mexico´s Independence day, but the town of Huamantla had obviously put a lot of time into lining their streets with flags, and were in no hurry to take them down

Besides, they were too busy enjoying a bit of Sunday afternoon rodeo action:

This video has the cowboy standing in the arena showing off some nifty rope skills (even jumping through his own lasso!) before casually catching the horse as it runs past!

Now that the Independence day celebrations are over, what happens to the traders selling Mexican flags and sombreros? Time to switch to a very colourful Halloween!

Before the vegetation took over, there was more colour with some very striking graffiti art promoting concerts and events. I saw another one in progress, and was impressed with the ease with which the huge letters were drawn, and the speed with which they were coloured in.

I also came across my first group of cyclists out for a ride since the Ragbrai in Iowa. This wasn’t on the same scale, but given how few road riders I’d seen in Mexico, a loose group of 70 riders was quite a sight, and good company for a good part of the morning. It didn’t look like a typical UK club run – but it was well organised with most people wearing the same jersey, and even an official looking motor cycle escort (one pictured here with the now ubiquitous back-of-a-phone pointing in my direction!)

There was also a vehicle up ahead that appeared to be part of the ride. So I made my way up the group to take a look. It was a pickup truck, with an object covered in flowers, and as I got closer, I could see these were surrounding a religious statue. As I got closer, I noticed that the lead riders behind this vehicle weren’t chatting much. Suddenly the thought occurred to me that “what if this is some sort of memorial ride”? There was me, happily wishing everyone I’d passed “Buenos días” (good morning), and now pushing to the front to gawp at something that could have great personal significance to those I’d passed. Crikey. Time to err on the side of caution and pull back a bit.

A short while later I got chatting to one of the riders. It turned out that this was an annual pilgrimage to a holy site, and this year was special as it was the 25th anniversary. So much to my relief, there was no coffin or ashes in the shrine on the pickup. The lead riders were not paying respect, just taking part in a bit of divine drafting!

Finally, for those of you not on facebook, I took a day off on my birthday to visit the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Appropriately for my ride of astronomical proportions, the two main pyramids are the Pyramid del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun)


and the Pyramid del Luna (Pyramid of the Moon).


While the Pyramid del Sol is the larger one (the third largest pyramid in the world) I thought that the Pyramid del Luna was the more impressive.

So there I was, standing on top of the Pyramid del Sol on the autumn equinox – the same day as my birthday. Just as I was wondering if this would have some auspicious significance, I started chatting with the other guy in this photo:


Charles was a very enthusiastic guy – and also the voice of Mario, one of the biggest characters in the history of video gaming. A very random, yet interesting and enjoyable encounter!

As ever, to keep in touch, check my facebook page for occasional posts:

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and my Strava profile for daily updates, including photos and some of the things of note that happened that day:

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