When approaching a big city, when the mass of humanity first appears on the horizon, I start looking for the next big tree. Once spotted, I pull off the road, and there in the shade I shed any additional clothing layers, “powder my nose” (as they say), drink a bunch of water, let the bike cool off, and find my inner peace. Navigating through a sprawling, unfamiliar city on often poorly-marked routes is guaranteed to be stress and chaos.
This sort of preparation is not necessary, however, when pulling into glorious Mexican cities like Zacatecas, in Zacatecas state, or Guanajuato, in Guanajuato state. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites, which in this case means centuries-old, historically significant, high-altitude colonial mining centers so utterly spectacular the sights alone are immediately soothing.
The two cities are so much alike, I could describe them together: Narrow brick avenues occupied by a good number of vintage VW Beetles, steep pedestrian alleys, classic architecture, and colorful homes built into the hillsides around one giant geological bowl. In Zacatecas, there’s even a Swiss-style ski gondola overhead, with red cable cars circling between the two peaks that stand above the city itself, each car shuttling four occupants on a scenic loop. On top of that, there is a gorgeous 18th century aqueduct made of pink stones.
In Guanajuato, there is an extensive network of underground roads, where drivers even parallel park inside the cavernous tunnels, freeing the streets from most forms of heavy traffic. For lovers of the macabre, Guanajuato is famous for a museum with at least a hundred mummies on display, all victims of a cholera outbreak in the mid-1800s, their bodies still clothed in ragged clothes somehow preserved by the thin, dry mountain air.
On the typical street, there are apartments overhead, big windows lined by eclectic flower pots made from re-purposed household cans and buckets, each with something colorful growing up and out. On the ground level, a thousand specialty shops of every variety, most run by a single proprietor with a specialization, everything from clothing tailors to appliance repair to hair salons.
Among all the vibrant commerce, there are even spontaneous outbreaks of music — men and women brandishing instruments, playing their hearts out — and then, seemingly without planning, a human parade forms out of thin air.
Maybe the hardest part about a long motorcycle ride is deciding whether to leave the city you’re in. I could have easily stayed in Zacatecas or Guanajuato, and called a happy ending to our “Two-Wheeled Wanderer” saga. Yet I will depart, as always. I suppose that is what makes one a wanderer in the first place: We could get comfortable in a pleasant place, but we know the routine would become the familiar, and eventually wear us down. We nomads are like crying babies, and the only relief is movement, like the motion of a gently rocking cradle.
So just like that, I rolled out of Guanajuato City and through five small Mexican states — Guanajuato, then Querétaro, then Hidalgo, then Tlaxcala, and now Puebla — covering just about every road type one could experience. Messy, lumpy gravel paths, then rough cobblestones, and even a proper eight-lane freeway, and everything in between. The main goal for now, aside from avoiding collisions and remaining upright, is to stay well clear of Mexico City. Not that there is anything wrong with the capital. In years past, I’ve spent weeks in and around the historical center, and it truly is fantastic. At the moment, though, I just don’t feel like navigating this motorcycle through a rough sea of 12 million souls.
It’s not all that much smoother in the periphery. Out here, 100 miles to the north and to the east of the capital, it’s just small city after small city, and hard to find much rhythm in between. There are some pretty stretches of road, for sure, places where I gaze out through my helmet and just marvel at the countryside. Other than that, though, it’s mostly just entering and carefully traversing and then exiting industrial cities, all the while eating diesel dust spewing from all manners of heavy truck.
At this point in the journey, though, I am in-synch with the bike and my gear, and feeling pretty darn good. I couldn’t be much lighter now. I’ve given away the superfluous items, like the leather work gloves I gave to the young guy hauling wood, or the shirt I gave to the old guy with no shirt.
I’ve since arrived into Tlachichila, in the southern state of Puebla. The town sits at 8,500 feet and is home to about 25,000 people, many indigenous, almost all tied to the fertile soil and lush green cornfields of the Orizaba Valley. On my way in, I got a smile and a wave from every single person I passed, which is always a great sign. The two women at the torta shop on the corner of the plaza were happily whipping up delicious sandwiches.
One asked me if I am here to climb the summit, which is the reason most any wily Gringo would visit Tlachichila.
The summit she speaks of is the dormant volcano the Nahuatl people named Citlaltépetl, also known by its Spanish name, Pico de Orizaba. It stands silently, yet its massive presence today feels as powerful as the violent earthly forces that formed it long ago. The glacier-covered pinnacle reaches nearly 18,500 feet, a full 10,000 feet above the valley floor, making it the third-highest mountain in North America (behind Denali in Alaska and Mount Logan in Canada’s Yukon Territory).
I’m now working to find a guide to lead me on the safest route to the top. With some luck, I will find her, and together we will bag this summit. Soon.