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From the city of Campeche, a colonial jewel box on the banks of the Atlantic, we rode for 12 consecutive days to reach the beaches of Oaxaca – south-west on the edge of the Gulf Coast, west through the heartland of Mexico’s oil industry, south to cross the country at its thinnest point, then west along the Pacific. (Click here for a map.) The cycling wasn’t often memorable, but, on a cycle tour of this length, nor does it always need to be. Indeed, nor should it be. We’re trying to give ourselves a cultural education, and flat highways through plain terrain tell us as much about a country as the spectacular rural roads that usually feature within these pages.

They take us to the places that the guidebooks miss. Coatzacoalcos, a second-tier port city with a quick pulse. Acayucan, where grubby outskirts disguise a vast, boisterous central square. Matías Romero, built as a railroad town but just then recovering from a three-day roadblock that caused 50km of stood-still traffic. La Ventosa, named for the fierce northerlies that have inspired the doorstep construction of a vast, beautiful and controversial wind farm (pictured above). Tehuantepec, a hub for the indigenous Zapotecs, easing into a mellow Saturday night. We will never return to any of these places, each of them somehow both typical and unique, but we are glad we saw them all.

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We are also glad we found the village of San Agustinillo, which told us precious little about Mexico but proved a pleasing spot in which to curl up with a succession of good books. Set on a postcard stretch of Pacific coast, San Agustinillo is sandwiched between Zipolite and Mazunte, two larger gringo-trail beach towns awash in the kind of backpacker-friendly antimatter – bracelet hawkers, reiki healers, open-mic troubadours – that we usually cross continents to avoid. It’s possible that such activity fills San Agustinillo during the high season, which starts this weekend. Happily, though, we found the village near-empty, the only disturbance being the smash of wave on rock.

 


 

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The direct road north from the coast to the city of Oaxaca de Juárez passes through and ultimately over the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. The mountains peter out not far to the west; more or less, in fact, where we’d hit the Pacific on our way south. But the range is still in full flow north of the crossroads town of Pochutla, from where Ruta 175 beats a confused path to Oaxaca.

Coaches and trucks don’t – can’t – take Ruta 175, which appears on maps like a felt-tip scribble from a toddler’s unsteady hand. Villages that sit 10km apart on a crow’s flight require 30km of serpentine tarmac to connect them. The curves are unceasing and the switchbacks often tight; the road required careful driving even before recent bad weather chipped holes in the surface. The sparse traffic consists of minibuses, road-repair crews, and holidaymakers proceeding gingerly towards the sand and the surf. It’s perfect for cycling.

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Barely more than a ledge in places, the mountain road is a little miracle of the engineer’s art. Although it was presumably planned with care, it has the feel of an improvised path cut into the available space, construction crews carving sense from the chaos of geology. Even heading up into the mountains from the coast, there are descents, speedy dives down towards rivers when the mountains briefly yield. But it’s mostly up.

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The vegetation changes as the road climbs, from the palms of the seaside past cactus plants and up into forests of odiferous pines. The few villages are perched on steep mountainsides, farms plunging down below them. Life here is lived vertically, where it’s lived at all. Not many people call it home.

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The peak arrives in El Manzanal – shop, restaurant, not much else – at an altitude of around 2,790m. From sea-level San Agustinillo, the journey requires nearly 3,700m of climb over 117km; it turns out that all those descents add up to more than 900m of elevation that must be lost, then regained. The sun is out at lunchtime but the chill is noticeable. The nights must be harsh.

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And then, of course, what goes up must come down, down, down into the Oaxaca Valley: the greens yielding to hazy reds and browns, the pines passing the baton back to the cacti. A day later, Oaxaca itself, visibly and audibly gearing up for Christmas on every corner. More mountains await to the north and west. But first, a breather.

from Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, Mexico