Friday, April 15, 2011

Talpa de Allende by Mountain Bike

Our good friends and neighbors here in Puerto Vallarta, Joe and Jan Sanders, suggested we take a biking holiday to the mountain town of Talpa de Allende, usually just referred to as Talpa.  So, last Tuesday morning we loaded our four mountain bikes into a taxi van and headed for the ATM bus station in downtown PV.  We had our bikes semi-disassembled and ready to load when our bus opened it's cargo doors.  Joe climbed into the deep cargo bay and Steve, Kay and Jan formed a line passing him bikes, wheels, and seats.  When all was loaded we boarded the red and silver bus and were on our way.

After minor stops at Las Palmas and La Estancia we passed through the town of Mascota, a relatively large farming community in a valley set among the Sierra Cacoma mountains at an elevation of around 3,800 feet.  So, as you can well imagine, we had done some serious climbing since leaving PV at sea level.  It was a tad bit unnerving as we were snaking our way up the switchbacks to note that our driver had his phone out and was tapping in a text message while occasionally glancing at the road ahead.

Talpa is in a valley similar to Mascota's however they are separated by another mountain ridge that rises to over 5000 feet.  When we crested the ridge at the summit between Mascota and Talpa I noticed that the elderly Mexican gentleman sitting in front of us crossed himself and mumbled a prayer.  Just then a small wayside chapel appeared at a viewpoint turnout on the right.  These factors came quickly into focus as the bus pitched over the top and started down what we later measured by GPS as a 14 to 15% grade.  A sign advised (in Spanish of course) using engine compression for braking.  Half way down a red line appeared in the middle of our lane.  It's purpose too became clear when we saw an emergency run-out for vehicles that have lost their brakes, similar to those in parts of my home state of Oregon.  The run-out is filled with loose gravel about a foot deep to gradually slow the runaway vehicle.  The red line leads to the run-out.

To our great relief our driver had finished composing and sending his text message before we began the descent and he used the compression of the big diesel engine to slow us enough that we could actually enjoy the amazing vistas.

Arriving in Talpa was the reverse of departing from PV: pull all the bikes and parts out and assemble them.  Our bus had left by the time Steve discovered that he was missing the nut and spring that holds the front tire to the forks of his bike.  Joe asked the bus dispatcher where the bus had gone and was told that it had gone to refuel at the Pemex station near the entrance to town.  With that Joe hopped on his bike and Steve borrowed Kay's and they took off to track down the bus, but by the time they arrived at the Pemex station about a kilometer away the bus had already refueled and gone so they headed back to the station.  When they arrived, Kay and Jan had good news, the bus had returned and they had found the nut and spring in the cargo bay.

Problem solved and we were all loaded up with backpacks, helmets and Camelbacks (water carriers with tubes for hydrating while riding) and headed for downtown to search for a hotel.  The first one we came to was called the Hotel Diamante.  It looked relatively new, the prices were reasonable (350 pesos/$32US) for a room with a double bed, and after a quick inspection we decided to look no further.

Like super-heroes we instantly changed into our bike clothes and headed out for a quick tour of Talpa, which is a major religious pilgrimage destination thanks to the appearance of a peripatetic virgin spirit that kept walking back and forth between Mascota and Talpa despite the fact that she had no feet, but nevertheless left footprints.

We were there just before the two week holiday and religious festival period called Semana Santa (Holy Week).  For now the hotels were mostly empty and the locals were busy cleaning, painting and assembing the temporary open tents that one often sees at craft fairs and Saturday markets.  Everywhere shops had extensive inventories of religious souvenirs, rosaries, postcard paintings of the virgin, etc.

The other big thing for which Talpa is known is its "rollos" (roy-yohs).  The area is well suited for citrus and other fruit orchards, particularly guava or guayabas as they are known in Spanish.  The rollo as its name suggests is a roll made of the fruit pulp, sugar and other ingredients.  They are typically about a foot long and three inches in diameter.  The ingredients are mixed 2-foot diameter open, spinning copper kettles mounted at a 45-degree angle.  You can detect the sugary-sweet smell of the concoction almost anywhere in downtown Talpa.  If you have ever smelled cooked Agave pulp from which Tequila is made you will no doubt notice a similarity.  And, if you've ever sampled the popular Christmas candies, Applets & Copplets you've got a general idea of what rollos are like.

After a few pictures at the huge basilica or Catholic cathedral that is the heart of Talpa, with it's twin spires and numerous bell ports, we headed the bikes out of town for an afternoon ride.  Talpa sits at the center of a long valley that trends NNW and SSE between rugged mountain ridges that in places seem nearly vertical.  For our first ride we chose the SSE leg.  After riding along a gravel road on the top of a river levee we discovered that it intersected a nice paved road that we had missed leaving town.  There was hardly any traffic and the uphill grade was practically imperceptible.  This is now the dry season and yet there are occasional fields of green alfalfa.  All along the road were beef cattle and dairy farms.

As our time was limited and we weren't sure if we'd be able to replenish our liquid refreshments further up the road, we elected to choose a small wayside grocery store called Abarrotes Mascorro as our turnaround point.  We met Sr. Mascorra, his son and his granddaughter who was apparently learning English in the first or second grade.  Sr.  Mascorra found it hilarious when we spoke to her in English and watched her shy embarrassed response--running away.  He told us that he had 42 hectares of pine-covered land for sale immediately up the road.  We concluded our rest on the benches beneath his gigantic shade trees and started the 10-mile cruise back to Talpa, with a strong tailwind and a bit of downgrade.  It took us about one-third of the time to get back to Talpa as it did to ride out.

Unlike Puerto Vallarta there are not row upon row of restaurants begging for your business in Talpa.  We actually had to search quite a while to find one, up hill and off to the right of the cathedral.  It was the El Dos Caminos and we were the only guests in the roomy pleasant facility.  It was a bit dim and the menu was limited but we enjoyed very reasonably priced platters of enchiladas.  Afterwards we strolled through town a bit and then had cups of ice cream across the street from the central plaza and cathedral.

Wednesday was to be our only full day at Talpa and therefore our longest ride so we needed a good breakfast to stoke our fires.  Based on a recommendation from a storekeeper who sold Joe a bandanna, we selected a restaurant called the Molino Rojo (Red Mill) which was immediately next door so it was easy for us to find that morning.  Appearing to be nothing more than a door between two shops, the interior opened up into a beautifully decorated salon with a large red coffee grinding mill at its center.  Again we were the only patrons.  Kay and Jan went for the hotcakes, Joe for the Huevos Rancheros (Ranch-style Eggs) and Steve with the chilaquiles (tortilla chips cooked in red sauce).  Both Joe and Steve's came with refried beans. 

All carbed-up and ready to go, we headed towards the NNE end of the valley.  Again, once we left the cobblestone streets of downtown Talpa we found ourselves on a nice smooth paved road.  All these changes in surface conditions kept us frequently locking and unlocking the front and rear suspensions of our bikes.  We soon ran out of pavement briefly where we found workers constructing a large, high bridge over a tiny trickle of a stream.  We learned later that this area becomes a lake during the rainy season of August through September.

Back on pavement we passed a turn-off on a dirt road with a sign that said "Cuale" and Steve remarked that this might be the road we would come back on if we took an alternate loop on the return instead of coming straight back up the valley.  Unlike the south valley, the north valley has several little towns along the way.  The first we came to was Ocote.  Shortly after passing through it Steve pointed out the beginning of the alternate loop that would take us to another valley behind the foothills and ultimately back into Talpa.  We continued on the nearly flat roads, paved, cobblestone, and dirt/gravel through the towns of La Canada, Los Sauces and finally, at the end of the valley, Cabos.  Each of these towns were pretty in their own way and had small plazas and churches with lots of red geranium flowers, bougainvillea and various shade trees.

In Cabos we had a nice conversation with a vaquero (cowboy) on his mule and a young man named Jorge.  Joe quizzed them about a possible route from there to Mascota that would avoid both the busy highway and the steep climbs.  Yes, there was indeed a dirt road to Mascota by continuing to follow the valley north, however, even though Mascota was only six miles away as the crow flies, it was more than double that just to intersect the highway beyond Mascota from which you then had to double-back to get there.  We decided that was too much, even for a full day.

On the way back we decided to take, for the lack of a better name, the Cuale Loop route, but first we needed to replenish our liquids, take a short break and have a snack, so we rode beyond the turn-off for the loop back into Ocote where we stopped for a refresco (soft drink) and some cookies.

Sufficiently refreshed we headed the half-mile back up the valley to the turn-off on to a decent dirt and gravel farm road.  After about a mile along the relatively flat road, Steve heard a rustling, clicking sound off to our right that sounded like locusts and we stopped to see what it was.  It was a dust-devil, a hot, fair-weather, mini-tornado.  The field in which it had formed was a hay field that had been left fallow and was full of chaff.  The clicking locust sound was caused by the swirl of chaff circling on the ground.

As we watched, the funnel, about 100 yards off the road and slightly downhill from us, began to grow in intensity.  We now could also hear the wind whistling and see the chaff being lifted higher in the air.  Simultaneously as it gained strength it began to move uphill, towards us.  We all sat transfixed on our bikes.  "Is this thing going to go right over us?" we thought.  Yes it was.  By the time it reached us it was about 80 feet or more in diameter with an eye of about 8 to 10 feet.  We felt the sudden rush of air in the eye wall and the momentary calm of the eye itself before it quickly crossed the road into a field of new grass that waved rhythmically to the gyrating vortex.  Chaff and dust were 100 feet in the air and all around us to the extent that it was getting in our eyes.

All in all it was an amazing experience that likely will never be repeated.

We soon reached the other valley behind the foothills and the good dirt and gravel road became intermittently replaced by dry creek bed, beat into an excuse for a road by the passing of numerous farm trucks, tractors and dump trucks hauling gravel and boulders.  Two miles further on we reached a junction with another apparently well-traveled dirt road.  To the right somewhere was the pueblo of Cuale and supposedly, if you followed it long enough, Puerto Vallarta via the Cuale River Canyon.  But such was not our quest today and so we turned left instead to begin the climb over what we will call the Cuale Ridge.

Now Steve had looked at this ridge on GoogleEarth prior to the ride and new that it had an elevation gain of at least 800 feet (250 meters) but he could not be certain how steep the grades would be.  Judging by all the switchbacks he saw, he hoped for the best.  As it turned out, most of it was in the 5 to 9% range, however there were brief stretches of 10 to 15% or more, and it was hot.  Fortunately, with about 200 feet of vertical left to go, some clouds drifted over and gave us a break from the midday sun.  Nevertheless, it was a beautiful route through pine forests dotted with occasional huge green maguey (ma-gay) plants which are members of the Agave family from which Tequila is made.  Sap from the big magueys like the ones we were seeing are used to make the traditional fermented Mexican drink called pulque.  The fibers of the plant were also used for weaving and rope making.

Our 800-foot ascent was rewarded with a spectacular view of Talpa and its valley.  The rapid descent back down to the paved road cooled us off and made the short cruise back to the hotel an easy one.

For dinner this evening we chose the well-known El Patio, on the plaza, just to the right of the entrance to the basilica.  Kay had a huge "Mexican Platter", Joe and Jan each had slight variations on beef steak, and Steve had chicken Milanesa-style.  This evening, everyone but Joe was too stuffed for ice-cream.  While searching for a bandanna for Kay, she and Steve met a Mexican gentleman name Juan Jorge Anaya C. who not only owned a tack shop across from the plaza, but also operated a riding school and had a large area near the entrance to town.  We got a break from having to use our fractured Spanish in that Sr. Anaya spoke fluent English.  He had studied English in both Arizona and San Francisco.  He told us he was sending his daughter, who was there helping to staff the tack shop, to Oklahoma to study equitation under Bob Loomis, a famous American horse and rider instructor.

Thursday was get-away day and so today's ride would have to be shorter than yesterday's.  Since we had a little more time than we had the first day we decided to take that same route to the south, only go further this time.  Again we stopped at Abarrotes Mascorro and had a chat with Sr. Mascorro.  We asked him a few more questions about his 42 hectares.  He said he was asking 5 million pesos.  That sounded a little steep to us. 

His roadside store marks the end of the valley and the beginning of the climb out of it.  We had started at roughly 3800 feet at Talpa.  As we began the relatively easy curving ascent with grades of 3 to 6%, we started to come across numerous landslides, or derrumbes, caused by the heavy rains of the preceding rainy season.  The cuts and fills along this route are very deep into the bright red dirt.  The challenge for the road crews is keeping the cuts from being refilled.

The winding climb was gorgeous through forests of pine and deciduous trees, some of which were now bare, but others still green with leaves.  Before we knew it we had exceeded the previous day's climb and were above 5,000 feet.  It's a lot easier on roads that are paved and where the grades never exceed 8 or 9%.  At the summit there was a viewpoint and pull-out.  From there we could see a huge network of small valleys, ridges and canyons.  Somewhere out there was the next town of La Cuesta, but unfortunately our time was running out.

We did manage to take a small side trip.  Near the summit there is a dirt road leading into a national forest.  Here we found the climbs did get steeper, sometimes into the 15% range.  The views near the top were not unlike what one might see in Steve and Kay's home states of Oregon and Washington, on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, just miles and miles of evergreen forests on steeply sloped mountainsides.

The coasting ride on the paved road from the summit back to the valley was a joyful series of sweeping turns with little or no traffic, such that we could use both lanes, which was necessary to avoid the several landslides.  We made one brief stop just before the valley floor at a little roadside restaurant and grocery store called El Refugio.  They also had 48 hectares for sale of pine covered land.  The wife of the pair was an attorney.  Joe bought a Coke bottle filled with crystal clear raicilla, which is the Mexican equivalent of "moonshine" made with the same Agave plant used to make distilled Tequila.

Before we knew it we were back in Talpa, getting showered, changed and ready to head for the bus station to catch our 5pm bus back to PV.  After Steve took his bike apart at the station he went back a few minutes later to move it and discovered that the front tire, which had been fully inflated when he took it off, was now completely flat.  A quick inspection turned up a thorn stuck in the tread.  Somewhere in the last 50 feet or so before arriving at the bus station entrance he experienced the one and only mechanical problem of all four bikes during the entire three days of riding.  It's always nice to have good luck with your bad luck.

With the sun setting in the west, the views of the canyons and gorges between Talpa and La Estancia were even more spectacular than on the bus ride up.  We arrived in PV at 8:45pm and thanks to Joe and Jan's cell phone our taxi van was there waiting for us.

A beautiful, fun-filled cycling adventure had reached its climax.