Wednesday, July 15, 2009

San Christobal

June 19th

After the diversion of the Sumidero Gorge, all that remains to reach our next destination - San Christobal, is the final climb. Unfortunately we dropped several hundred metres down to the gorge at Chiapa de Corzo and San Chritobal is 1700 metres above us! There are 2 roads we can go by, 78kms on the free route and just 45kms on the toll road. We need to decide on one of them.

'Cuotas' (the toll roads) tend to be more direct, have steady gradients using bridges and tunnels to defeat the contours of the land and have wide shoulders for cyclists. They are also usually monumentally dull, having no towns or other features on route. By contrast 'Libres' (the free roads) tend to meander an interesting course between local villages and mountain viewpoints. On the downside they usually have no shoulders meaning you run the gauntlet of speeding traffic and they tend to be an exhausting series of steep climbs and height wasting descents. Often you lose half as many metres as you gain and 78kms would be an extremely tough day for a 1700m climb with all those drops. We opt for the cuota to save time.

Fortunately the cuota only applies to cars and lorries - for biciclettas, all roads are libre. This is the view back to all those paying customers and gives an idea of the gradient of the climb....

Several miles in, we start to appreciate the precision of the road builders. Cuotas are indeed very different to normal roads and this one looks like the course was mapped out by shooting an arrow direct from Chiapa to San Christobal. It neither deviates nor alters it's constant gradient and we are beginning to find this is a mental challenge as well as a physical one. On roads where the gradient does change you get a chance to rest your legs or at least use different muscles, and the view is always different - not so here and this climb goes on for 30 miles!

It's a grey day and the views we should get over the valley below are obscured in cloud....

We can see the cloud line hanging ominously above us like a barrier and in time we rise up to meet it. The world disappears....

It's like riding in a cartoon - the one where the artist is scrambling just ahead of us, just out of view and frantically painting in the next scene. It gets a little scary as visibility drops to 10 metres and cars occasionally drift into the shoulder, only seeing us at the last second. We ride in gloom for 10 miles.

The wet season has given birth to thousands of massive flying ants. These things are huge - perhaps an inch long!

Well I say 'flying' ants. They have wings, but 'flying' is being generous. As the bikes approach, they labour ponderousy, maybe a foot into the air to avoid us, then crash back down to earth and lumber on. It's like watching a stricken B52 bomber, overloaded with a huge payload trying to get airborn. Over night they seem to wise up and shed their useless wings and assume a more earthbound existence - leaving all heavenly aspirations to their leaner insect brothers.

Like I said, the climb becomes a mind game and any distraction from the numbing gradient is welcome, even if it is just watching rubbish ants trying to fly. The sense of enclosure from the encompasing grey starts to feel claustrophobic and we rue the fact that there are no views. Normally that is what makes a climb worthwhile.

Bridges lead into a grey abyss....

And then it starts to rain. This is one of those riding days that goes in the 'not so good' category. To make matters worse, my altimeter seems to be on the blink as it shows us to be 250m above San Christobal.

At last we understand why. San Christobal is set in a hollow, surrounded on all sides by pine covered mountains and it would be asking too much to build a tunnel though all that rock. The last 3kms is all downhill and at last the legs get a rest and we can pump some of the lactic acid out of aching muscles.

It's been a tough day. 45kms of an unrelentingly constant and fairly steep gradient. The roads of San Christobal have turned to rivers and literally flow with 2 or 3 inches of water. Bemused car drivers wave us through stop signs rather than delay our progress; whilst they enjoy their dry, heated interiors.

With relief, we find a hotel close to the 'zocalo' - the main square and dry off. Outside is a world of water....

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