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For all that we’ve enjoyed our time in Mexico, the cycling here has sometimes been a little utilitarian. There have been fine rides along the way – the two-day climb from the Guatemala border to San Cristobal de las Casas, the three-day oceanside stretch west of Salina Cruz, the up-and-over ribbon road connecting the coast with the Oaxaca Valley – but Mexico has been more about the destinations than the rides we’ve taken to reach them. Or, at least, it had been until the last two weeks of January.

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The direct route between Mexico City and Santiago de Querétaro covers roughly 220km; flat, fast and rideable in two days with time in hand. We’d probably have taken it if it wasn’t for our friend Cherry, whose evangelism for the town of Jalpan de Serra led us to thread together a ten-day, 780km circuit in, around and over the Sierra Madre Oriental that eventually connected A to B. The resulting ride was rarely flat, far from fast – and the most glorious cycling we’ve enjoyed since we left Colombia.

 


 

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You don’t need an expert eye to pick out the Sierra Madre Oriental on a relief map of northern Mexico. On either side of the mountain range, which tracks a diagonal line between the US-Mexico border (at Texas) and Puebla, lies desert. This desert isn’t pancake-flat, at least not always, and is often 2,000m or more above sea level. But on any satellite image of the area, it’s the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental that jump off the screen.

Within the Sierra Madre Oriental lie various smaller ranges, each with something of their own cultural and geographic character. The route we followed passed through – well, over – two of them: the Sierra Alta Hidalguense, in Hidalgo state; and the Sierra Gorda, which occupies nearly a third of the state of Querétaro. A part of each range has been designated by Mexico as a biosphere reserve due to its exceptional ecological diversity and importance, designations that essentially mean they’re protected from overdevelopment and agricultural abuse.

 


 

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The Sierra Gorda, in particular, is a fascinating case. Encompassing everything from arid semi-desert to towering pines to tropical rainforest, home to more than 300 species of bird and at least 800 types of butterfly, it’s the most biodiverse region in Mexico. Unusually for such an ecologically valuable area, it’s also almost all in private hands, and environmentalists have long been concerned about illegal logging and other unsustainable agricultural practices that could cause the region irreparable damage. Such worries are amplified by the poverty endured by a large percentage of the Sierra Gorda’s 100,000 inhabitants, many of whom work the land as subsistence farmers and live a hand-to-mouth existence. The second largest source of income here is migrant relatives in the USA sending money home to their families.

The solution – well, a solution – is tourism. These are not famous regions, and few tourists venture this way. But an organisation called the Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda has been working with local residents to try and introduce into the area a small, sustainable tourist infrastructure – rural retreats, tours, even restaurants – with the aim of bringing new money into the area while also helping to preserve it.

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After buying a couple of Cokes at the comedor atop the monster 2,000m climb from Jalpan de Serra, we fell into conversation with the women in the kitchen. The building looked old, and we asked how long they’d been there. Their reply surprised us: a year, they said. The adobe building had been constructed in 2013 by hand with practical and economic assistance from the region, and the women – who proudly announced that their business, Las Manzanitas, is on what’s been designated the Ruta del Sabor (‘Route of Flavour’) – now turn out regional staples for drivers and the occasional cyclist who pass over this spectacular road.

 


 

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And about those roads. The main highways quiet and the minor routes near-empty, the small towns friendly and dotted with quietly extraordinary diversions (the UNESCO-approved 18th-century Franciscan missions in and near Jalpan de Serra, Edward James’s surrealist garden in Xilitla), this really is wonderful terrain for cycling both on and off the beaten track.

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Nearly every day brings a new treat. The joyous 1,500m descent, first through pines and then across sweeping semi-desert canyons, to the Río Venados. The morning-long climb up from Metztitlán to Eloxochitlán, then the dirt-road detour back to the main road. The rolling highway from Molango to Tlanchinol, delivering balcony views over a misty mountain range with no apparent end. And, best of all, Ruta 120, offering endless variety as it arcs up and over the Sierra Gorda before plunging into the semi-desert and the vineyards near Tequisquiapan.

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None of this comes cheap. On a fully loaded bicycle, as always, you have to work for your rewards, which on the route we took means a near-constant up or down between a chilly 2,850m above sea level (Mineral del Monte) and a steamy 90m (near the start of Ruta 120, north-east of Xilitla). The 320km stretch from Huejutla de Reyes to Cadereyta de Montes, which we rode in four days, carries with it a total elevation gain of 6,700m (22,000 feet). The weather isn’t shy about making its presence felt, most commonly by cloaking roads and towns in a thin, damp mist.

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But, of course, such variation in altitude is what makes the landscape here so spectacular. We’re coming down from the mountains for what might be the last time on this trip, and we shall miss the giddiness they give us. But this was a fabulous way to leave them behind.

 


 

Route notes: We mostly stuck to beaten paths. After leaving Pachuca on Ruta 105, with a detour to Mineral del Monte (see our previous post), we forked left on Ruta 37 via Metztitlán as far as Eloxochitlán, then tracked a signposted dirt road for 20km to rejoin Ruta 105 just south of Molango de Escamilla. From Molango, we continued on Ruta 105 via Tlanchinol to Huejutla de Reyes; headed north-west on Rutas 105 and 85 via Orizatlán and Matlapa; then cycled south-west on Ruta 120 to Xilitla, Jalpan de Serra, Pinal de Amoles, Vizarron de Montes and Cadereyta de Montes, from where we eased our way to Querétaro over two days via Bernal and Tequisquiapan. Each of these towns contains several basic, affordable hotels with the exception of Eloxochitlán, where a few locals rent rooms to travellers; ask at the police station for guidance. Camping spots abound.

That said, there are literally dozens of alternative routes you could take through here, including many isolated dirt roads that require more time and more appropriate tyres than we had at our disposal. The spider’s web of roads into these mountains is best examined on the clearest and most accurate maps to Mexico, which are published by the Mexican government and are available as free PDFs, one per state, from this link. For this region, you’ll need the PDFs covering the states of Hidalgo, Querétaro and San Luis Potosí.

 


 

from Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico