“You will stay in my house, and you will stay for at least one week.”
And that was that, we knew where we’d be staying in Mazatlán. I met Santiago in 2001 when he was running a Mexican mountain bike race team. He sponsored me and a few other riders to come to Mexico to race in the Copa Jumex. A couple of hours into the race, my head was pounding from the heat and in my hallucinations I was swimming laps in a pool of ice cold Gatorade. The nail in the coffin came when a young rider in cutoff jean shorts and tennis shoes passed me. The shame. For old times’ sake, Santiago invited us on the Saturday group mountain bike ride in Mazatlán.
“Sheena, you and I will rent bikes. Brad, you will ride my bike.” A pretty generous offer, considering that his bike used to be Todd Wells‘ race bike. If you don’t know Todd, he is a two time Olympian and US national champion. However, in a sick twist of fate we were unable to find any cycling shoes and pedals to borrow. This time Sheena and I would be riding in tennis shoes. Total. Freds.
As it turned out, Santiago’s rental bike was a bit dated and far too small for him. He stuck it out for the first half of the ride, but then pulled the plug. Hey Santiago, 1998 called. It says it wants its bike back.
Regardless of the bike situation, the group was charged up about getting to show us their local trail. In 2000 there was a UCI mountain bike World Cup held here, and everyone in the group mentioned it at some point. It had become a point of pride. The world came here to ride on our trail. We found this pride, coupled with generosity, everywhere we looked.
With Santiago as our guide we traveled all over the city to meet people and eat well during our one week stay. He would walk in front of us as we honed in on the best street carts. “See that one? It is packed with Mexicans. That is how you know it will be good.” After discovering Sheena’s unhealthy obsession with Pastel de Tres Leches, a cake made with three varieties of milk, he made it his personal mission to bring us to every establishment with good Tres Leches. By the end of our stay, she had earned the nickname “Sheena Tres Leches”. Probably not the kind of nickname a girl strives for, but it has meaning and was well earned. Now she runs every day in an effort to return to having only one chin.
A couple of days into our stay, Sheena mentioned to Santiago that her tooth had been developing an ache. Without another word, he picked up the phone and got her a dentist appointment for that evening. When we arrived at the dentist, he spent about 30 minutes with her, did a complete cleaning, took x-rays, and told her how to get rid of the ache. When it was time to go, we asked him how much we owed him. He just waved his hand in the air, and said with a smile, “Don’t worry about it! Just have a good trip and be safe!”
During our stay we made friends with Chacho and his brother Ulises. They’ve lived in Mazatlán all their lives, and still live in their family home in the historic center. During our hike to the lighthouse, Chacho learned of Sheena’s Tres Leches problem.
“My aunt makes the best Tres Leches in Mexico.” It was the kind of pride we’d come to expect in Mazatlán, but sounded like a big fish story. I once had a Mexican guy tell me that he made the best enchiladas, but that ended with me waking myself up in the middle of the night by projectile vomiting out the side of my bed. We just left it at that.
Throughout the week we attended two of Santiago’s city league basketball games. Going to the games was a good way for us to get together with locals; we met Jorge, who works at the Pacifico brewery, and Papas, whose family runs a taco stand on a street corner in one of the neighborhoods.
One evening we stopped at Papas’ taco stand and sat down in front of the giant grill. The cook, one of Papas’ family members, threw down a plate and tossed several kinds of meat onto it for us to eat while we waited. Two terra cotta cazuelas sat atop the flames filled with tripa and carne asada. A woman stood to the side making fresh tortillas for each order. After so much meat, ceviche, and horchata, we slipped into a heavenly food coma. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Mexican taco stands: pretty much the best thing ever. As we left, Papas told us to stop by his house on our way out of town to say goodbye.
On our penultimate day Chacho invited us to the beach to fly his kite, an experience that solidified the fact that neither Sheena or I would ever succeed at kite surfing. Before he went home he invited us for a going away get together. “You guys come over for coffee tonight. I have a surprise for you.”
When we got to Chacho’s house that evening he seemed to be smiling more widely than usual. “I will be right back.” He disappeared into the kitchen and came back with two cups of coffee and a Pastel de Tres Leches. “I told my aunt that you love Tres Leches, so she made you this cake.” Think about that. When was the last time you went that far out of your way for someone you just met? As with so many people we’ve met on our trip so far, Chacho is a real class act. And by the way he was right. It was hands down the best Tres Leches in Mexico.
The next day we packed up Nacho for the trip south. From the lap of luxury back to the van of luxury. As we packed, a young kid with a skateboard walked by and stopped when he looked in our van. “It’s our home” I said. We got to talking and I told him about our trip. After a while he wished us luck on our trip and continued on his way. Pretty inquisitive and mature for such a young guy, I thought.
After a short while the word had gotten out amongst the neighborhood’s ten to thirteen year old demographic. Throughout the afternoon kids would walk up and wish us luck on our travels. Nothing malicious or predatory, just good old fashioned nice. And here I had gone and given up on that particular demographic all together. Egg on my face.
The night before our departure we swung by Papas’ modest house just down the street from his taco stand. He came out and we talked about our trip for a while, and then he told us he had something for us. He ran inside and emerged with a plastic bag full of carnitas. He told us that every morning at 4:00 he slaughters a pig for his taco stand, and he had set aside some of the meat from that day’s pig for us to take on the road. And just like that, we were humbled. Again. Thanks Mazatlán.