Mexico, Photographs, Travel

Photo of the Week: Villahermosa’s Wrong-Way Boulevards

Last week I wrote up my wanderings in Villahermosa, but I realized I left one thing out. Villahermosa is the only city I’ve ever seen with divided boulevards… where both sides go the same way.

Here’s proof:

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

I’ve wracked my head about this and can’t imagine any advantages to this setup. Anybody have an idea?

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

In the City Is a Jungle, In the Jungle Is a City

Previously I did time in the dark little city of Cárdenas and finally made it my next destination, Villahermosa. Now it’s time to explore another one of Mexico’s great cities, and the ruins of one of its empires.

Stone heads!! Photo by Andre.

Stone heads!! Photo by Andre.

Tuesday, January 13 – Saturday, January 17 (Days 921-925 of the Great Adventure)

Villahermosa is a city of contrasts. It’s the state capital, but not much happens in the centro; it’s a metropolis, but good luck finding internet; and despite these inadequacies it’s oddly expensive—easily on a level with San Miguel de Allende, the gringo haven. It does live up to the “hermosa” in its name though, with a gorgeous central plaza, winding tree-lined streets in the Zona Luz (Zone of Lights, the hip area), and lots of parks and public spaces.

Main plaza in Villahermosa, with fountains. Photo by Andre.

Main plaza in Villahermosa, with fountains. Photo by Andre.

My room at Choco’s Hotel was, well, weird. The only window opened onto the stairwell, meaning I had to make sure the curtain was closed at all times. It had a small writing desk at least, but the bathroom was hilarious. Here’s one of my video logs to prove it:

I didn’t spend too much time there. Most of the first day was sent dodging rain and looking for a coffee shop with good wi-fi. Café Havana, tucked on a pedestrian mall near the Centro, seemed promising, but I couldn’t get the signal to work and the waiter was unsympathetic. Café Punto del Cielo, a popular chain in Mexico, had a particularly striking setting: stone archways with walls of pure glass, a view in every direction—plaza on three sides and the river on the fourth. I tripped into this beautiful space excited to work there, but the barrista informed me their wifi was down. Back into the rain I went.

Café Punto del Cielo in the central square. Photo via Foursquare.

After exploring several phantom cafés that exist only in Google, I settled upon Antigun Café in the Zona Luz. This place also doesn’t have wi-fi, but I could at least get a phone signal there and decided to drain my data plan to get my work done.

During my wanderings I’d spotted a surprising number of Chinese restaurants, so tried one out for dinner. It was mall quality, but good enough with hot sauce.

Antigun Café. Photo via Skyscraper City.

Antigun Café. Photo via Skyscraper City.

Ilusiones

The next day was an exploration day. My main goal was the museum park of La Venta, an outdoor archaeological park with the remains of the Olmec empire.

On the way I made a few other stops. First I checked out the observation tower near the Centro—a stark East German looking structure that shoots up from a pedestrian bridge over the river. Every source I could find assured me it’s free and open to the public, but when I got there in person I found a locked cage gate over the doorway and a distressing number of ripped-out electrical wires visible inside.

The observation tower and bridge entrance, also seen from inside Cielo. Photo via Foursquare.

Next up was a small park I noticed on the map. It fascinated me because it has a lagoon with an island. Remember, even just open water in a Mexican city is a little unusual to me, Catemaco notwithstanding. I wanted to see this for myself.

Parque el Jícaro was kind of empty and lonely. The spot where it meets the street is mud rather than lawn. Beyond that, however, is a paved pathway that encircles the entire lake, with some fantasy architecture including steps that go down into the water. Humble houses ring the pathway, and the people there waved and said hello, a refreshing change from Cárdenas

View of the park. The photo makes the person sitting there look very sad, but in reality I think she was checking her phone. Photo by Andre.

View of the park. The person sitting there looks very sad, but in reality I think she was checking her phone. Photo by Andre.

The museum park lies across a much bigger lake. I could have taken a main street all the way there, but I chose to wander backstreets instead. Soon I turned down a dead-end street called Las Ilusiones, a name that would be right at home in New Orleans. With a name like that I had to see it for myself.

The street headed straight down to the big lake. It was a quiet, sleepy lane lined with upper middle class houses: big white cement affairs with walled yards and gardens. One even had a gazebo. The workers from one house sat at a card table outside, taking a break and playing some kind of game. They waved as I went by.

At first I thought this was it—it was just a vaguely yuppy-ish lane with a too-creative name. But oh no. I followed Las Ilusiones to the very end, the shore of the lake itself, wondering if the rich folks had a little beach. Instead I found this:

Photo by Andre.

Photo by Andre.

That’s right, the lakefront of this beautiful, wealthy neighborhood is used as a public trash dump. Illusions indeed.

Back up the lane I went, across a bridge over the lake, through a city park filled with more Soviet structures, and up to the gates of La Venta.

More totally-not-Star-Wars public architecture in Villahermosa. Photo by Andre.

More totally-not-Star-Wars public architecture in Villahermosa. Photo by Andre.

The Museum Park La Venta

If I understand the history correctly, La Venta is actually some distance outside of Villahermosa, and is a rich trove of Olmec treasures. But the archaeological site was threatened by Pemex oil drilling, and archaeologists had to evacuate the statues and artifacts to a safe place in a hurry. They established the park to both save the treasures and put them on public display.

I arrived about an hour and a half before official closing time, which meant no one wanted me there. The park was nearly deserted, and two museum staff followed me at all times to make sure I kept moving. They kept a respectful distance, but the message was clear.

The park is a forest. You follow wandering pathways through the jungle and come upon clearing after clearing, each one bearing an altar, a preserved tomb or a stone head. Museums take notem because this is ingenious. It creates the sense of true exploration. You always feel secluded and never know what will be around the next curve. Perfect.

Ignoring the hint from my two shadows, I took video after video, always thinking it was the last one but then finding something even more amazing a few minutes later.

Here’s the video log of a stone mosaic that looks like a puzzle in Illusion of Gaia:

The whole series of La Venta videos is effectively a virtual tour, available to supporters. Happily, La Venta also has a large population of tejones, a.k.a. coatis, a.k.a. LITERALLY THE CUTEST ANIMAL ON EARTH, as this picture proves:

Coati! Photo via Animals World.

And yes, I got a bunch of them doing coati stuff on video, also available for supporters.

La Venta is big, but even when I finished it there was more to see. I bought some fried plantain chips and walked along the shore of the lake, a herd of coati following me. (They didn’t seem too interested in the fried bananas, which means these scavengers from the raccoon family are healthier eaters than I am.) A footbridge along the lakeshore had another observation tower, and this one too was sealed shut:

I don't know why they make these things so ugly. All I can say is Mexico ♥ Modernity.

So damn ugly. All I can say is Mexico ♥ Modernity.

Still hungry, I began the long walk home. I stopped at a sushi restaurant for dinner, where I observed a solo female traveler (Mexicana, not foreign) doing exactly what I was doing: sitting alone, eating slowly, reading on her phone. I didn’t talk to her and she didn’t talk to me. It was like introvert sex.

Afterward I stopped by an Italian restaurant I’d found in the Zona Luz, called La Dantesca, where I grabbed tiramisu for dessert.

Another famous building in Villahermosa. Mexican government photo.

Rainproof Priest

The rest of my time in Villahermosa was relatively tame. I spend a lot of it working and a lot more walking around, even buying an umbrella to combat the rain (at “we know you need this” stormy day prices). I discovered another cozy café in the Zona Luz, this one with actual internet, but the owner had a habit of standing on my table to bring down imported Italian goodies for other customers.

I’d noticed some good-looking pizzas at La Dantesca, and went back twice more for dinner. It’s terrific, and I highly recommend it.

[Andre’s note: If it seems weird that I eat so much pizza on this trip, bear in mind that it’s one of the few non-Mexican foods you can find almost anywhere in Mexico. After enough tacos you start to crave something different.]

Throughout all this I kept a nervous eye on my bike, which was outside in the (gated) parking area of Choco’s hotel. He did fine and no one harmed him, plus I did some late-night maintenance to make sure he’d be in tip top shape come the next leg. Soon it would be time to get back on the road.

Next time the weather changes for the better and I strike back toward the Gulf Coast. This is the beginning of the final stretch into Yucatán. Until then, check out previous road logs or become a supporter.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Hotelstuck

Last time I crashed in a love hotel with a bad knee and a worse case of food poisoning. Now it’s time to decide if I can go on—and what my other options are.

January 7-11 (Days 915-919 of the Great Adventure)—Hotelstuck

The Rogue Priest is nothing if not stubborn. My alarm went off early, and I awoke in my romantic-but-kinda-creepy hotel room.

I had some problems.

My stomach churned. The room spun. My forehead was on fire, and I went from overheated to chilled through in turns. All I could think of was the awful ground meat from the night before.

The knee wasn’t so great either. But maybe it wasn’t as bad as it was yesterday afternoon? Maybe the rest and ice had helped? I convinced myself of that. It was definitely better.

I checked the weather. My tail wind was still blowing, offering an “easy” ride to Villahermosa. And a short ride. Half a day tops—for real this time. I didn’t have much time; by evening the wind would shift. It was push on or get trapped.

So I allowed myself a little more sleep, then began assembling my things. The idea of breakfast grossed me out, so other than water and a few bites of candy, I left the stomach empty.

My riding clothes were soaked and covered in grit from yesterday’s ride. Many of my regular clothes were wet too, a memento of the failed lavandería in Coatza. But by bit I bagged everything and got it into the saddlebags, then loaded up the bike. The process was rough: every two minutes I had to stop, lay on the bed, and breathe. No coach would’ve given me the green light to go out on the field.

Finally it was time to go. I drank some more water and laid around one last time. Then I went downstairs, got on the creaky bicycle—his chain still covered in grit—and opened my personal garage bay.

The road lay before me.

I walked the Giant to the shoulder. The wind blew strong. This was the moment of truth; hopping on, I put weight on the first pedal with my good leg, then tried the next stroke with the injured one.

“Aaugh!”

The bike glided to a stop. My feet touched the ground. I would not be leaving Cárdenas.

Instead I looped a few blocks away—limp-pedaling, of course—to the hotel I had meant to check into the night before, Hotel Madan. Even in those few blocks I got sprinkled on, rain from a sunny sky with giant clouds moving in. I was secretly grateful I would not be out on the road today; I had given it the best effort possible and could rest with a clear conscience.

Hotel Madan Cárdenas is a great place. Considering all the meh hotels I’ve been to, I was pleasantly surprised: large clean rooms, AC that works, wi-fi that works (!), a writing desk in every room, an on-site restaurant. It was great. Mostly though I just wanted to check in quickly and fall asleep, which did not stop the staff at the counter from showing me three separate rooms so I could choose which one I liked best.

Finally I was alone. Fever burning, I cranked up the AC, put on my driest and cleanest t-shirt, and climbed under the covers. On top of the 10 hours of sleep from the night before I now slept 7 more, getting up only to sip water.

In the evening I debated what my stomach could handle and found out that most of the simple things on the hotel menu—like hot oatmeal, or a waffle—were not actually available. I forget what I ended up with, but I ate it slowly and gratefully, iced my knee and went back to bed.

The wind shifted in the night and there was no longer a reason to hurry. I decided to rest as long as needed to get the knee back to 100 percent.

Cárdenas

Cárdenas is a small city with not much going on, and it has a vaguely depressed and dangerous vibe to it. [Andre’s note: months later I would meet a friend whose wife is from Cárdenas. He said that after 28 years living in Mexico City, the only time he ever had a gun pointed at him was in this pleasant little burg.]

Here are a few highlights:

  • I got pretty tired of the hotel restaurant. The surrounding neighborhood was pretty dead, however, and I became a fixture there morning and night.
  • Walking around was eerie, because people would stare silently at me. But I walked around a lot, because I needed to go out for big jugs of water.
  • I discovered that the “Hidalgo style” quesadilla restaurant wasn’t just one place. It’s a popular Tabasco chain. Every time I walked past one I would blanch, and I’d be seeing them for some time to come.
  • There was a power outage one night. It was the only disruption to the hotel wifi of my entire stay, making Hotel Madan officially the most reliable internet connection in Mexico.
  • Eventually I did find the bustling central jardín, the one area guaranteed to seem lighthearted and festive in any Mexican city. Here it was not. People stayed mostly to the bars, restaurants and low-end shopping spots along the edge, and the jardín itself was mostly empty. It was home to a too-modern clock tower and some closed eateries. Teenagers chatted and smoked, but families hurried by.
  • At the edge of the jardín was the creepiest thing I’ve seen yet: an abandoned carnival. Okay, it was probably just closed, but it was an odd place to explore. I wandered among the shuttered rides shooting a video, which supporters can access.
The centro in Cárdenas trying to look charming. Photo by Andre.

The centro in Cárdenas trying to look charming. Photo by Andre.

As my knee recovered I ranged farther and farther looking for anywhere fun in town, or even just a great restaurant. One day I stopped at an American chain pizza place alongside the freeway (I honestly forget if it was Pizza Hut or Domino’s). Next door was a KFC.

The food poisoning passed within 36 hours of the bad sope. The knee was much slower. Since Coatza I’d performed daily trigger point massage (thank you Amber!), taken anti-inflammatories and applied topical ointment. As it healed I also did light stretching. [Andre’s note: I now believe the problem was patellar tendinitis, which is not uncommon for cyclists.]

I wanted to get out of Cárdenas—it wasn’t the happiest place for me—but I refused to go until my knee was truly healed and ready for combat.

About five days later, it was. 0.6 miles.

Map.

January 12 (Day 920 of the Great Adventure)—To Villahermosa

Wow, did it feel good to leave. I said goodbye to the hotel staff, who were like bffs by now. Every day they’d watch me walk outside and look at the weather, gauging the wind, and they’d ask

if I was staying till the rain passed. I said “Si, más o menos,” but of course I was really waiting to heal. Now they watched as I mounted up and prepared to bike out under a sky of black clouds.

“It’s going to rain,” said the daytime desk lady.

I smiled. “I know,” I said. “It’s fine.”

And it really was—although as I recall, I never got a drop of rain that day.

I had already done some biking sans cargo around town, and the knee felt good. Now the bike was fully loaded. I was tender with my pedaling, and there was no pain.

The road rose to meet me. I began to crank out the 32 short miles to Villahermosa. 32 miles—a three hour ride, maybe two hours with that tail wind I’d missed. For someone who has the approximate endurance of drunken rodeo bull, it’s disconcerting to know I couldn’t make those couple of hours earlier.

The terrain was relatively flat. Out of Cárdenas I crossed a river that put me literally a stone’s throw from the state of Chiapas, a state I’ve still never been to. A couple hours later I rolled into the edge of Villahermosa.

I could tell right away that Villahermosa (“Beautiful Villa”) is a bit different from other Mexican cities. It seemed more spread out and maybe more modern, in the sense that most of it was built in the last century. It also has a variety of lakes, rivers and streams, something I’m not accustomed to seeing in a Mexican metropolis.

I worried the traffic entering the city would be unholy, but it was fine. I had done some research and chosen a hotel near the historic center, named Choco’s. (I’m unclear whether there is an eccentric Mexican woman named Choco, or if the hotel is actually owned by a chocobo.) I reached Choco’s on a healthy, intact knee and checked in. After a shower I went out in search of a sushi restaurant that appears on Google Maps but doesn’t actually exist. 32.2 miles.

Chocobo. Art by Silverbirch.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 32.8 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4277.5 miles.

Next time it’s giant stone heads, long tail raccoons and an explosive shower stall. Until then check out past road logs or become a supporter.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Dark Days in Tabasco and Veracruz

Last time I made it to the coastal city of Coatzacoalcos, but at the cost of an injured knee. Now things are about to get worse.

Sunday, January 4 (Day 912 of the Great Adventure)—Rest in Coatza

Coatza (KWAT-zuh) is a good enough city if you can get get around. But it sprawls Texas-style with long city blocks. With an overuse injury on one knee and soreness in the other, I made a rule: no biking anywhere in town. If I had to go somewhere, I would walk.

It limited my options. The centro was quite a hike away, and I never got there. The first morning I found a nice looking cafe just a few blocks from my hotel. They had pricey breakfasts, decent coffee and semi-reliable wifi. More importantly it was a change from my dreary hotel room. I actually went back later in the day with my laptop and sat there working.

I also made a plan. I couldn’t afford to risk more injuries. One way to prevent them is to reduce the amount of weight I carry—in other words, chuck some gear. I had already paired my kit from the early days of my Adventure, but I carried a pile of camping gear that I hadn’t used once in Mexico. It had to go.

I’d toyed with shipping it home as far back as San Miguel. Back then I worried I might still need it, but now I knew I could find a cheap hotel virtually anywhere in Mexico. I just had to figure out the details. What does it take to ship a box from Mexico to the US?

My friend Cintain gave me the info I needed. Short version: it’s gonna cost you.

The Mexican postal system suffers from a few flaws. For one, it’s slow. The post cards I’d sent from San Miguel a month ago still hadn’t arrived at their destinations (they ended up taking five weeks). Secondly, and more importantly, things have a habit of disappearing. Especially expensive looking things, and especially expensive looking things that have to go through customs, as all international packages do.

I have no idea if a bivy, an air mattress and a few odds and ends would look “expensive” or not, but I didn’t want to find out. Cintain urged me to use a private service like FedEx. Pricey, but reliable.

An afternoon storm rolled in off the Gulf so I didn’t get to go box-shopping just yet. Instead I discovered that the restaurant across the street was a sushi place (!). Once I found that out the storm didn’t bother me.

Also across the street was a small coffee shop. It was only open at night, so after dinner I took the laptop over and tried it out. Their menu bears a beautiful statement about the Slow Food movement. I didn’t try the slow food, only the slow coffee, which was excellent.

"Its symbol is the snail, emblem of lentitude."

“Its symbol is the snail, emblem of lentitude.”

Once they closed I went back to the hotel, iced my knees, and slept.

January 5 (Day 913 of the Great Adventure)—Boxing Day

I wanted a cheaper breakfast, and stopped by a small open-air place. It was the right choice. I had my first order of motuleños, an open-face stack of tortilla, ham and fried eggs with all sorts of delicious stuff poured over it.

Photo by Andrew Dunbar via Wikimedia

Even more important, the place put a bowl of salsa macha next to me. I would put this sauce on everything if I could.

Salsa Macha. Photo via Tom’s Kitchen (click for the recipe).

After that it was time to hunt down a shipping box. This is one of those things where every store you go to doesn’t have it, but they’re really sure which other store will have it, and then the cycle repeats.

Eventually an Oxxo employee sent me to a big-name supermarket/department store. I thought he was saying they sold boxes, but as I walked past the bag check (yes, you have to check bags at these stores in Mexico) I noticed piles of flattened boxes waiting to be recycled.

“Pardon me,” I said to the bag check man in Spanish. “Are those for sale?”

“No,” he said.

“Can I have one?”

“No.”

“I need a box to mail something.”

“How big?”

I held up my bivy sack, which I’d brought along for exactly this reason. “Big enough for this.”

“We don’t have any that big.”

I pointed. “What about that one right there?”

“Which one?”

“That one.”

He wandered over to it. With some more pointing and coaxing he identified the one I meant.

“Can I see it?”

He handed it to me. It was big enough.

“Can I have this?”

He shrugged.

“Muchas gracias.”

I got it all packed up. Once full the box weighed nearly 12 pounds, which is 12 pounds less weight on every pedal stroke, for 40,000 strokes a day. Hell of a workout.

(Hell of a price, too. I chose the slowest FedEx shipping option and spent about US $100 for the privilege. But hey, I got a tracking number.)

I wouldn’t actually ship it till the next morning, though, and spent the rest of the afternoon doing client work and resting my knee. For dinner I decided to walk toward the main drag, only to discover one American fast food restaurant after another. Coatza is an up and coming oil town, plus a major port. Eating American food is a sign of success.

I gave in and went to Little Caesar’s. This was a family favorite when I was a kid, and eating there brought back memories. I won’t lie, it was tasty. But by the time I was done I felt queasy; it didn’t help that they had only soda to drink, no bottles of water.

A young local man and his mother sat down at the next table. They struck up a conversation and we chatted for a while. They helped me learn to pronounce “Coatzacoalcos” correctly. As they got up to leave the kid suddenly turned back to me.

“Hey, can I ask you a question?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

“The pizza here… does it taste like it does in the United States?”

I thought about it, and said truthfully, “It’s exactly the same.”

He grinned a giant smile that I’ll never forget, thanked me, and headed out.

I finished the night back at the Slow Food cafe, where the staff were happy to see me. They kindly warned me that tomorrow they would be closed, and I had to tell them that was fine—I’d be gone by then. The knee had improved, and I’d planned a very gentle route. Or so I thought.

January 6 (Day 914 of the Great Adventure)—The Longest Road

Yesterday’s motuleños were so good I went back to the open air breakfast place. The tarpaulin roof whipped in the strong stormy wind and napkins fluttered off the tables.

In a further bad omen, the local laundry place had suffered from a power outage. They had managed to wash my clothes, but not dry them.

The lady helpfully suggested I could come back in the afternoon.

I shook my head. “Give ’em to me wet.”

So I shipped my FedEx box, put on soaking wet bike shorts, and kept the other wet clothes carefully separate from my laptop inside my saddlebags.

My plan was simple. Today there was a powerful west wind, one that could help propel me forward, but it wouldn’t last long. In fact, the forecast said that once the wind shifted it would be a headwind for weeks. If I went now I had a free ride.

Or close to a free ride, anyway. Even with a tail wind and a lightened load, the knee was weak. So I planned a very short riding day, just 40 miles to a town called Benito Juárez. I felt confident the knee could go that far without re-injury.

Things started out okay. The wind kicked up behind me. I had to cross a river to get out of Coatza, and as I approached the bridge a police officer waved and shouted for me to pull over. I did, but he had other people to deal with. I guess he expected me to wait for him. Instead, in what has become an alarming habit, I just shrugged and biked onto the bridge anyway. He didn’t seem to notice.

After the river were miles of hills. I took them slow and dismounted anytime they got steep. The knee was alright. But my heart sank a little when I saw the turnoff for Agua Dulce. I’d been looking forward to that town for over a year. No particular reason, but look at the map. It sits 10 kilometers off the main road in the middle of nowhere. The name means “Sweet Water” and it’s surrounded by jungle. I figured it would be cool to check it out. But I couldn’t confirm if it had any hotels, and I couldn’t risk 20 km of extra riding if it didn’t. With a heavy sigh, I passed the turnoff and continued on.

(Also around then I crossed the border from Veracruz to Tabasco. I’d now come all the way from the Louisiana town where Tabasco sauce is made to the Mexican state it’s named after, which made me smile. And crave a poboy.)

That was about when the storm hit. For most of the rest of the day I’d be biking in heavy rain. I kept a close eye out for Benito Juárez. I couldn’t confirm a hotel there either, but at least it was on the main highway. I figured there’d be something.

But it wasn’t finding lodging I needed to worry about, it was finding the whole town. It must have been located slightly off the highway, with no real signage. I sailed right past and never even saw it.

When I discovered this, turning back against the west wind was not an option. My knee was getting sore again, but I pushed on, mile after mile, aiming for the next town: Cárdenas.

The farther I went the slower I pedaled. Instead of 40 miles it was 70. I barely even used one leg, trying to favor my strong side. It was after dark when I got there.

Que romántico. Photo by Andre.

Que romántico. Photo by Andre.

The Love Hotel

Unlike the other towns, Cárdenas has plenty of hotels and they’re all listed on Google. I was in a bad way, however, and chose the first decent looking one on the highway. (I actually mixed it up with a highly reviewed one I’d seen on Google, located two blocks away.) The hotel was happy to accept me, but I wasn’t their usual clientele.

Here’s how this place works:

  • You drive your car straight into your suite. The whole ground floor is a parking structure, with at least 3 dozen mini garages in it. You pull into any garage slot that’s open, close the door behind you, and walk up the stairs to your room. You never even see the staff.
  • The rooms have an automated payment device inside. You pay after you’ve claimed a room. The options are “overnight” and “4 hours.”
  • The rooms are actually really nice. But they have a clear focus. Giant glass-walled shower/sauna, oversize bed, total privacy.
  • The hotel has a kitchen, but room service only. You never leave your suite or see anyone else in the hotel. Ever.

If that sounds like a sex hotel to you, you’re right. But it’s a whole species of sex hotel that we don’t have in the U.S. There are no prostitutes prowling the grounds (you’d never even see them). The whole place is optimized for married businessmen and their mistresses.

So checking in was a riot, or would have been if I wasn’t in pain and half drowned. I’m sure I’m the first customer who ever arrived by bicycle. I insisted on going to reception (once I found a parking attendant), which no one ever does. It’s up a small staircase behind a locked door in a concrete hallway, with a bulletproof window. Then I asked to look at a room before paying, which is probably also a first. So they walked me into one of these garages and showed me the deal. And then, because good things come in threes, I returned to reception and paid in cash rather than using the automated device in the room. It was a confusing time.

The parking guy explained the room service deal to me. But I didn’t really want to sit in my mistressless love nest and eat an overpriced steak. So after I showered—and tracked grit and sand all over the suite—I changed into some fresh, wet clothes and limped into town for food.

This is what I got:

"en estilo Hidalgo." Never again Hidalgo!!

“En estilo Hidalgo.” Never again Hidalgo!! Photo by Andre.

It didn’t look any better in person than it does in that photo. I overrode a nagging instinct and ate my dinner. Hours later, with an ice pack on my knee, I would spend a lot of time in my romantically lit, luxuriously tiled bathroom. 73.7 miles.

Map. (The first few blocks are off due to one way streets.)

Total traveled this leg: 73.7.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4,244.7.

Next time I’m grounded—and not for just a day or two. Until then, check out other tales from the road or support the Adventure by getting the video logs.

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Into the Serpent’s Nest

Last time I spent New Year’s in a city of witches. Now it’s time to saddle up and hit the road again—and hope that my body can handle these jagged hills.

This area is so beautiful it's used to film jungle scenes for movies. Photo via Filmapia.

This area is so beautiful it’s used to film jungle scenes for movies. Photo via Filmapia.

Friday, January 2 (Day 910 of the Great Adventure)—To Acayucan

After breakfast and a final lakeside offering, I was ready to wheel out of the City of Sorcerers for the last time. Today, however, I had a soundtrack.

Two years ago my friend Zack Whitley (the same one who designed my business cards) moved to L.A., God rest his soul. But it made sense; he works in TV and movie production and I hear they do some of that out there. He is also a gamer, like me, meaning that if we get a chance we’ll gladly spend our free time playing make-believe with other grownups.

When Zack got to L.A. he promptly made friends with a bunch of other gamers—all also movie industry creatives. They weren’t content to just play a fantasy game every couple of weeks. Instead, they spun it into something more: they wrote stories, created artwork and even composed a soundtrack to their adventure.

That soundtrack was officially released just as I left Catemaco. Zack sent me a copy and asked what I thought. I said I was about to bicycle through some jungle-covered volcanoes and I would play it on the way.

“That,” he said, “Is the perfect place for this music.”

He was right. I waited till I was out of town so I wouldn’t be distracted by a lot of stop and go. The road south from Catemaco is a two-lane jungle highway with light traffic. As the forest closed in I put on my ear buds and pressed play.

Here’s a sample track, which I recommend you play before you read on:

The first track is a swirling crescendo that sets the scene for the saga that follows. It reminds me of Secret of Mana. It was to this backdrop that I recited my daily prayer to the road, which goes roughly like this:

O Road that I embark upon today,

Road that will take me to Acayucan, I pray,

I wish to tread gently upon you,

To be a good companion

And receive, I hope, good company in return;

To travel with a full heart and an open one,

Laying down blessings wherever I go.

O Road of my destiny:

I greet you,

I salute you,

I bless you.

May you be blessed!

Needless to say, hearing a movie score swell as I said these words is pretty damn cool.

The entire album is good. It definitely feels like the soundtrack to an adventure movie, but completely instrumental. The tracks force you to conjure the battles, the tragedies, the evil sorcerers in your own mind. Coasting through shady, misty tunnels of trees, it sometimes made the hair on the back of my neck tingle.

If you want to check out the album for yourself, head to The Vigilant Menagerie.

Painful Climbs

Not all was good on the day’s ride, however. That amazing scenery involved more of the extreme up and down I’d been experiencing since cutting inland. I would rise or fall 1,500+ feet in just a mile or two. Although my knees had rested up in Catemaco, they still weren’t at 100%. Soon I was back to soreness on every uphill pedal-stroke.

If I could reach Acayucan, my destination for the night, I’d be out of the crazy volcanic hillsides and the terrain would be more level. But it was a long 50 miles and I don’t remember much about the villages along the way. I do remember the mouth-watering smell of grilled chicken that inevitably accompanied them, and how I considered stopping for some at a little hamlet that clung to the roadside. Instead, wanting to simply be done with the ride, I gulped a sports drink, ate a snack and smiled at some curious-but-shy kids before hurrying on.

The land transformed. From the jagged forest ridges I emerged into a sort of elevated grassland, fenced off and turned into fields here and there with clusters of untamed jungle in the background. It was like a tropical version of Wisconsin. There remained plenty of hills, however, and by the time I approached Acayucan I was happy to be done.

Ice Packs and Za

Because of the mood I was in, I don’t think I was able to properly appreciate Acayucan. Effectively the county seat, it’s a bustling little city with a very orderly centro. I found my way along an onslaught of one-way streets (not always going the right way) to a hotel I’d chosen online, Los Arcos (“The Arches”). My mood extended even to this place: the Arches cost more than my typical overnight, and not until long after I was gone would I appreciate how good I had it. The wifi was strong, there was an actual writing desk in my room, and it included working (!) air conditioning.

Instead I focused on the basics. After stowing the bike and showering, I sought out a local pizzeria. It was advertised on the hotel menu, and looked better than your typical Mexican street pizza. Sure enough, I found it just a few blocks away and ordered a small pizza with pineapple and pepperoni.

It was so good—and I was so famished—that I followed it up with a second one.

That was about it for me. I got a milkshake from the hotel restaurant and picked up some ice for my knees. I spent the remainder of the evening reading on my bed and alternating which knee got the cold treatment.

At this point it should have been clear that I had really overdone it, but I felt I was past the worst of the hills. I also knew that Coatzalcoalcos, a coastal city, was just one short day away. If I was going to give the knee more rest days, I’d rather do it at the beach.

I made up my mind to continue on and fell asleep. 50.6 miles.

Map.

Also in Acayucan I found this spider on my bike shorts. It turns out that if you google a spider you can find find out a lot of things, but not how venomous it is. Can we get a Knowledge Graph for this?

Also in Acayucan I found this spider on my bike shorts. It turns out that if you google a spider you can find find out a lot of things, but not how venomous it is. Can we get a Knowledge Graph for this?

January 3 (Day 911 of the Great Adventure)—To Coatzalcoalcos

Morning brought less knee pain, but not 100% relief. Still, I had breakfast at an outdoor cafe and then mounted up. It was a foolish choice.

I was right about the terrain: the route ahead was far less hilly. There was little of the dramatic up and down of the past few riding days. But it wasn’t flat, either. The hills could take me up a thousand feet over a number of miles and often featured smaller, sharper rises, like bonus features on a bad DVD. These were hills that would have once been easy, but I could feel the strain in every pedal-stroke.

I began to really doubt my decision to go onward. I became worried for my knee and the prospect of a serious injury reared in my mind. But I was miles out already, and today was a very short day—less than 40 miles total. I kept going.

Eventually it happened. Ironically, I was past the very last of the hills. I had reached the coastal flats that lead out toward Coatzalcoalcos when my knee abruptly went from sore to wicked. Pain shot up on every stroke. I was hurt.

It wasn’t a good place to do it. Coatza sits on a point that juts into the Gulf, and it’s surrounded by marshes. I was on a long, remote highway that crosses that marshland like a causeway—no houses, no gas stations, no nothing. But it was nothing but tall green marsh on either side. Traffic was heavy, but in that grassy tunnel I felt very much alone.

I had few choices. It was 15 miles on to Coatza, and a lot more than that to go back. I began to sort of limp-pedal. I would pedal strong on one side with my good leg and just let the injured leg swing loosely on the other side. This worked to reduce my pain but it also slowed my pace significantly. The green marsh road seemed endless. I saw industrial sector of Coatza far in the distance but it never seemed to get closer.

Despite being beautiful, the road was unpleasant. The shoulder was in truly horrific condition and I really had to bike out in traffic. Traffic didn’t like that much. Mexican drivers are far more courteous and aware of cyclists than Americans are, but even so it was a lot of trucks barreling down behind me. They came in waves, so I would ride the lane during a quiet spell then rattle over to the shoulder to avoid the next surge. It wasn’t great.

Coatzalcoalcos

Back when I considered kayaking the Gulf Coast, this city was my destination. The final port of the voyage. So Coatza holds some special significance for me, but by the time I got there I was anything but triumphant. I actually considered rolling into the first love nest hotel I found, but I’m glad I held out. I’d already limp-biked 12 miles, why not go three more?

There was a final challenge, of course. Coatza is connected (and divided) by a giant freeway that’s the only way to get into the downtown. The main artery features a huge overpass—in other words, one last slog uphill. Screw that. I got off and walked the bike. On the way up the ramp I did have one good moment: I saw a man in his 40’s standing on the pedestrian walk and staring intently off at the trees. He had his camera out. I followed his gaze and, sure enough, there was a big beautiful iguana in that tree. I was in no state to get out my own camera, but here’s a picture of the sort of critter we saw:

Photo by Ken Johnson. Thanks Ken!

Photo by Ken Johnson. Thanks Ken!

Finally I was up the last hill and could coast toward a hotel. I’d looked up several that were central and didn’t look too expensive. As it turned out Coatza (like many industrial towns) is pretty spread out, so “central” is relative. But I wasn’t picky, and the one I checked into was pleasant enough.

Even with the setbacks, 40 miles is indeed a short ride and I’d arrived much earlier in the day than I usually do. I figured I might as well go see the beach and get a swim in before the hot part of the afternoon was over. (Walking didn’t irritate the knee at all; it was only the repetitive pedaling motion that did it. And stairs.)

The beach in Coatzalcoalcos. Photo by Andre.

The beach in Coatzalcoalcos. Photo by Andre.

Beach Time

Aside from being the end point of my would-be kayak trip, Coatza has a bigger significance—a mythical one. Supposedly, the pre-Hispanic natives of Mexico had a myth that one of their gods had departed over the sea and would one day return. When the Spanish arrived, so the story goes, some of the locals wondered if Cortés was the return of that god. Sound familiar?

Well that “god” is Quetzalcoatl, which is a name used by both a major deity and a famous king. One of them, either the king or the god, did indeed set out over the sea with a promise to return. And the place he left from?

Coatzalcoalcos.

(My understanding is that the -coat in both words is the same root which means “snake.” Quetzalcoatl is the Feathered Serpent and Coatzalcoalcos is the Place Where the Serpents Nest.)

I wanted to gaze out at the Gulf and picture the old king drifting over the horizon. It wasn’t easy; there’s very little that seems mythical about industrial Coatza with its giant seaport. Turning the other way, to the west, it was much easier to picture a lone kayak rolling in with an exhausted adventurer inside. (Perhaps with a strained back instead of a strained knee.) I wondered how different my life would be if I’d chosen to go by sea. I’ve really enjoyed the bike trip, but I wonder.

Industrial or not, Coatza has a huge strip of sandy beach along its whole west side. It wasn’t crowded: two young guys sat on a towel with a stack of beers, and one family frolicked in the waves. I could see other people here and there down the shore. I jumped in, played in the waves, and forgot about my knee for a while. And I recorded a video on the sand for my supporters (you can get access here).

An American Flavor

My original plan was this: swim, then seafood. Beachside eateries lined the shore, and I chose the one with the best patio.

But they didn’t have seafood. Kinda seems like bad policy.

I strolled down the malécon and checked out others, but they didn’t appear. They were what you’d expect: overpriced traps that only had customers because of the ocean view.

I turned inland and grabbed a couple cochinita tacos to tide me over. Later that night I tried the closest restaurant to the hotel, a local pizza spot. It couldn’t compare to the pie from the night before, but it filled me up.

After that I was done. There was a lot you could wish for in my hotel room—better wifi, AC that worked, a window to the outside instead of just a ventilation shaft—but that night it was all I wanted. I iced my knee and fell asleep. 38.3 miles.

Map 1. 25.1 miles.

Map 2. 13.2 miles.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Mexico’s City of Sorcerers

Last time I threw myself against volcanoes and hills that tore me to pieces. Now it’s time for some rest, some holiday festivities, and a chance to explore Mexico’s most infamous magical city.

Shop in Catemaco. Photo by Andre.

Shop in Catemaco. Photo by Andre.

December 29, 2014-January 1, 2015 (Days 906-909 of the Great Adventure)—New Year’s in Catemaco

There’s no doubt that Catemaco has its secrets. The streets hold the same promise as certain out-of-the-way parts of New Orleans: the sense that you could disappear into another world, that the ramshackle houses hold more than they let on, that unseen eyes are aware of your approach, and that you, dear visitor, will never know a hundredth of what goes on there.

Not every neighborhood is like this. Much of Catemaco is a typical mid-size Mexican town. It has convenience stores, gas stations, cyber cafes, and all the usual shops. It’s not a rich city, but most of the area’s commerce is concentrated there—and it gladly leverages its sorcerous traditions to fuel a growing tourist economy. But just a few blocks from the centro, with its one colonial church and its tile-roofed restaurants, you can find lonely, quiet lanes that head toward the magic lake. Theirs is not the malecón with its sand beach, seafood stands and boats for hire. No, these streets cross without warning from residential lane to forested lakeshore. Under the gloomy trees are unmarked cottages made of sticks and thatch, piles of coconuts that were cut and then forgotten, scraggly, thorny brush crowding in on narrow foot paths. It’s all deliciously similar to the dirt alley that leads to our Vodou temple in New Orleans, and I have no doubt the local practitioners gather there.

Just beyond you can just see the silver water of the lake, and at its edge a few thatch-roofed seafood/beer restaurants. These are the haunts of locals, not tourists. I poked around, but in the light of day the only person present was an old man gathering sticks.

This is a microcosm of my experience with Catemaco. I would find hints and promises of mysteries to be explored, but could never quite get my nose in them. Not that I pushed too hard: I wanted to meet one (or more) of the sorcerers, definitely, but only if it came naturally. And above all, only if I felt in my heart that I had found someone sincere in their beliefs. I have no interest in tourist charm-stores.

There was one very overt magic shop just a block from my hotel. On its wall was a hand-lettered list of all the services performed: amulets, magic baths, spells for money and love, curse breakings, and about 30 others. They barely had room on the building for a doorway. I would glance in as I went past, often several times a day, but I never once went inside. I just got a strong, strong vibe that this was for show, that this wasn’t where I wanted to be.

In my world, it would be better to meet someone at a restaurant or in the market, by chance. Or perhaps stumble on an out of the way shrine and be noticed making an offering. Or even lock eyes with one of the old ladies at the mystical artifact booths by the square, and realize abruptly that she seemed trustworthy to me. These sorts of organic connections are, I find, much less likely to lead to a charlatan. They’re also more rare, and if you insist on waiting for them you can sometimes wait a very long time.

Thus, several days into my time in Catemaco I realized two things: (1) I wouldn’t learn anything about the magic traditions if I didn’t go into the tourist shops, and (2) I was okay that. I found a curious peace at the thought of not diving into yet another mystical tradition, if it also meant not having to deal with a bunch of sales pitches along the way.

Instead I tried to take Catemaco as it is. And it certainly is a spiritual place.

Photo by Andre

Photo by Andre

The Lake

The lake is not just the reason the city exists, it’s also the reason its magical arts exist. Lake Catemaco and the mountain above it are reputed to be sources of mystical power. They certainly are breathtaking. The green mountain rises out of the mist and the jungle-covered hills like a grandfather swarmed by his grandkids. Whether the sky was cloudy or pure blue, the lake itself always seemed to be the same silver-mirror color. The surface would ripple in what little wind reached it, and never formed waves bigger than a canoe.

There are islands in the lake. One of these has a chapel and some old ruins on it; my priest radar pinged and I’m 100% sure sorcerers conduct their rites there. Others have nothing but forest. Three of these are home to three different species of monkeys (one species per island). One was seeded intentionally with a few members of an endangered species, and has become a preserve to replenish their numbers.

I strolled the lakefront one day hoping I could rent a kayak, but the only options are tour boats. Each boat seats about sixteen people, and they don’t wait to fill them up; as soon as you pay the man he casts off. I found the idea too depressing. All those empty seats, and nothing but the awkward bad-Spanish chit chat about where I’m from and what I do. I went to the shore of the lake and made offerings, but stayed firmly on land.

(Just as I was thinking of myself as the great explorer for getting to this out-of-the-way destination, I found out that my friend Ken Johnson came here years before me and paddled all over the lake. He brought his own kayak, of course.)

Cool building near the square. Photo by Andre.

 

Munching Snails

The lake is also a major source of food. While much of the seafood sold in restaurants—grilled fillet of fish, octopus with garlic, shrimp cocktails—comes from the coast 30 miles away, I kept seeing signs for tegogolos. It took me a while to find out what this is. It’s a word for the local species of freshwater snails that are pulled out of the lake everyday. Every street has one or more homes that sell them by the kilo; all the restaurants serve them as well. I decided to try them, of course, but first I wanted to find a good restaurant. The only way to do so was to try a few out.

The first contender was just steps from the beach where the tourist boats go out. Covered by a thatch roof, it was called Restaurante Buena Vista (“Good View Restaurant”) and indeed has a great view of the lake. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed. I spent one of my first afternoons there, eating some poorly prepared shrimp cocktail, some lukewarm tacos and, thankfully, a few beers. I’m really glad I didn’t trust these people to take my tegogolo V-card.

Across the street was second restaurant, similar in its thatch roof design and claims of fresh seafood. This one, however, had a view only of the busy main street, with no lake view at all. Its name was something to the effect of Restaurante Buen Sabor, “Good Flavor Restaurant.”

Wondering if there is such a thing as truth in advertising, I went there the next day. The meal they brought me was ridiculously good. Their shrimp cocktail was much fresher, and the octopus I ordered had that crisp just-done-enough-but-not-chewy quality that so few places master. I also noticed that in the evening, when the Buena Vista ran out of tourists and closed for the day, the Buen Sabor filled to capacity with Mexicanos. I went there several times and every single meal was exceptional.

So I’m sure I couldn’t find better tegogolos than at the the Buen Sabor, and that was where I tried them. They were… meh. Not gross at all, as you might worry snails would be. If you like oysters, imagine a tougher, chewier, slightly bitter version of those. (That description may leave you saying, “That doesn’t sound as good as oysters,” to which my answer is, “Right.”) They were cooked, I think, but the Buen Sabor serves them cold, covered in lime juice and chopped tomatoes with a hint of onion. They also give you muchos more limes so you can squeeze them over the snails to taste. With or without extra sour, I was not wowed. If they were, say, sauteed in garlic and butter and served hot they might be tasty. But that’s basically just covering up their natural flavor with other ingredients. Bottom line: not my thing.

The view from the Buena Vista really was good, though. Photo by Andre.

The view from the Buena Vista really was good, though. Photo by Andre.

Biding My Time

I was disappointed that I didn’t arrive in time for Christmas in Catemaco. In Vodou, Christmas eve is dedicated to the Petwo spirits (a nation of spirits all loosely associated with fire) and is celebrated with large bonfires and some sacred fire rites. I wanted to see if the local magic/spiritual traditions do anything similar. But I had fallen pray to sidequests: first the ghost towns of Real de Catorce, then a homestay with a family in San Miguel, and extended stays in Tula and Huamantla. I’d ended up spending Christmas in Xalapa, just three days’ ride away.

[Andre’s note: To anyone who considered joining for a segment of the ride, this wouldn’t have left you hanging. I got flexible with my rest stops and itinerary precisely because I had no one waiting to meet me up ahead. If there had been other cyclists, I would have kept everything exactly on schedule.]

I still had a chance to stay for New Year’s, however, and I was curious what it would be like in Catemaco. Until then, I had plenty of client work to catch up on, and a little exploring to do.

Places to work were limited. My hotel room had a balcony, which seemed like the ideal writer’s nook once I pulled a chair and table out there. The hotel wi-fi was iffy at best, however, and the signal was virtually nonexistent outside.

The centro had two potential work hangouts. Both were second-floor coffee shops with a view of the square and a robust menu of food, coffee and drinks. One of these had a thatch roof and hammocks to lay in, as well as its own book and handcraft store (la Casa de los Tesoros). The overall vibe was that of a giant treehouse. It also advertised organic wines and locally made chocolate. It’s exactly as heavenly as it sounds. The downside was it could get quite crowded and, of course, no one wants to spend every afternoon and evening sitting in the same cafe.

The other option was perhaps even better. It had a more reasonably priced menu and very strong wifi, and it was cozy though nothing like the treehouse. This would have been my #1 pick for serious work spot, with the other one as my hangout for evening reading, except for one snag: this place was only open at night.

Between these two places and using my phone as a hotspot at the hotel, I caught up on all my client work while in Catemaco. I also found an excellent Italian restaurant tucked away on the lake shore road, which made a nice change of culinary pace. For a small town, Catemaco is a good place to eat.

Inside the treehouse. Photo by Andre.

Inside Casa de Los Tesoros (the treehouse). Photo by Andre.

Side Trip

My knee was sore for days after my ill-fated arrival, but about three days in (and after plenty of ice) it seemed to be doing well. I decided to take a day trip along the shore, with no cargo on the bike, and see how I held up.

This area is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve found in our world. The surreal hills, like folds of a crumpled green blanket, positively glow with dew, mist and the flutter of creatures beneath the canopy. Traditional houses, with brightly painted walls and thatch roofs, peek out from clearings beside the road, with carefully fences to keep the chickens in. These are people who have smartphones, use the internet, and drive to work in trucks or on motorbikes, but continue to use traditional thatch roofs because they let the breeze filter into the home while keeping the sun and rain out.

I went some miles up the road and around a curve of the lake. People were surprised to see me but friendly, waving as I went past. A few wild dogs kept after me for a bit but dogs have long since ceased to worry me as a cyclist. I ignored their gnashing jaws and they lost interest soon enough.

Most of the road was hemmed in by jungle and hills on both sides. Once in a while I’d catch sight of the lake, glittering platinum as always, in a drop between horn-shaped peaks. The ride was uphill, but with no weight on the bike it was pleasant.

Finally, about two villages on, I got the best view of all. A small gate guarded a road that ran straight to the lakefront. The land there had been cleared—someone’s ranch, I suppose—and I could see homes, palapas and a dock on the shore below. That was as far as I needed to go. I committed that beautiful vista to memory, grabbed a video of it for supporters, and turned around.

Catemaco's centro as seen from the hotel. Photo by Andre.

Catemaco’s centro as seen from the hotel. Photo by Andre.

New Year’s Eve

The big night finally came. In the preceding nights there had been giant gatherings in the centro, with people wearing costumes and dancing in a big circle. These events emanated the unmistakable music of African drums, confirming my suspicion that the local traditions might be influenced by the African diaspora.

On New Year’s Eve, however, the square was oddly quiet. In fact, it seemed deserted, even an hour before midnight.

A party was happening at the treehouse, however. I’m lucky I arrived when I did, because not long afterward they locked the downstairs gate. I get the impression that most of the people upstairs were there by invitation. The staff knew me as a regular, however, and they seemed happy to let me stay (one even told me he would secretly leave the door unlocked for me when I had to step out to run to the hotel). I took a seat off to the side, ordered some wine, and—of all things—caught up on some reading on my laptop. The life of a solo traveler is not always a gregarious one.

Groups of people did filter into the square, but never very many. Beside the plaza was the pyrotechnic crew surrounded by an impromptu cordon. At midnight they began their volley: an explosion of fireworks that would give any Fourth of July a run for its money. The difference, of course, is that there are few regulations in back country Mexico. The rockets were launched just meters from where spectators stood, aimed loosely into the air over the plaza and a city that still uses thatch roofs. I spent at least as much time watching with fascination as burning shrapnel fell among the streets, the roofs, and even the groups of revelers below. To them, the incoming flames seemed to be a great game: children dodged and danced among them, laughing, while parents looked on with grins. With each new flaming shower a chorus of shrapnel went tink off the treehouse’s tin roof.

When the fireworks stopped most of the celebrations did too. One family stayed in the street below me, the parents chatting while the kids threw firecrackers, but the treehouse emptied out and so did the streets. That was New Year’s Even in the City of Sorcerers. Pretty fun, but pretty normal, too.

The next morning I would get up, strap everything back on the Giant, and bike down the malecón one last time, stopping to admire the silver lake before taking to the road.

Next time we’ll see if my knees are recovered enough for the mountains ahead. Until then, get yourself a postcard and check out my other road logs.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

A Crooked Path to Catemaco

Last time I had a rough ride through Veracruz and a reprieve in Alvarado. Now it’s time to head toward Mexico’s famed city of sorcerers, Catemaco.

December 28 (Day 905 of the Great Adventure)—To Catemaco

Morning found me in my bargain hotel room. The mattress rested on a concrete slab, boards covered a hole in the hotel wall, and the blinds didn’t quite block out the view of passersby—or the morning light. Slowly I stirred, ready for the day ahead.

I ate breakfast at the Monkey Cafe in the central jardín, then got my things together. Today would be a 60 mile ride, not terribly long but involving serious hills. I would cut inland toward Catemaco, where Mexico’s most infamous brujos live. The terrain between Alvarado and there was a cluster of sharp ups and downs marked in don’t-do-it red on my topographical tool. It would be a challenging pedal.

First, however, I had to get onto The Bridge.

I say The Bridge because this is a huge highway span that connects Alvarado’s peninsula to the mainland across the bay. Accordingly, it starts from the heights above Alvarado, a hundred feet over my head. Getting onto it would involve backtracking several kilometers, all uphill, but I wondered if there was another way.

The map made it look like there may be. From one small neighborhood built in The Bridge’s shadow, it appeared that a footpath wound its way up from the city streets to the highway. (An eerily familiar situation, if you remember my time in Thailand.) I wouldn’t mind just pushing my bike up that path, if I could find it.

So off I went.

Alvarado gets few foreigners. But you could tell, as I turned into this neighborhood, that their street gets none. Every single person stopped their conversation and stared as I bicycled past. Men painting, women chatting, kids playing—the whole street went silent. I waved and gave a buenas dias, and it took them a minute to remember their manners and mumble one back.

Finally I got to the last alley, where it looked like the footpath should start. I turned down it…

…and nothing.

Just a dead end, a steep concrete wall with highway somewhere high above it.

Ah well. As I came back out of the alley, I cracked a grin. Literally everyone I had passed stood there waiting for me. They knew it was a dead end, of course, and wondered where the heck is this guy going? Unless I had a distant grandmother who lived in a house on the alley, they knew I was coming right back out.

I smiled and rolled up to the group of painters. “Pardon me,” I asked in Spanish. “Do you know if there’s a way to get through to the highway?”

They laughed, getting it. They told me I could just take the main road up, and I nodded. “I know, but I was hoping there’s a shorter route.”

One of the painters pointed one street over, vaguely in the direction of the elusive footpath. “You could take the stairs,” he said.

Stairs.

I thought about it briefly, but shook my head no. They said I could carry my bike up, but I pointed at the saddlebags. “It’s very heavy,” I said.

That was when they really went out of their way for me. I was prepared to take the long way around, but they gave me complicated directions to a shortcut. When I didn’t seem to follow these directions, one of the men flagged down a woman on a motorcycle.

“Hey,” he told her. “Can you show this guy where such-and-such street hits the highway?”

“Sure!” She motioned for me to follow her. I waved goodbye to my new friends and did an admirable job of keeping up with her, if I do say so myself. At stop signs she would try to ask me questions about myself over the sound of her engine, which meant she didn’t get many helpful answers.

Eventually she showed me the spot. Sure enough, such-and-such street doesn’t technically connect to the highway, but there’s just a metal barricade you can easily walk around, and the highway isn’t far beyond. I thanked her and we both went on our ways.

Getting up The Bridge was just the first uphill slog of many that day, and I was still fresh. The view as I went over was spectacular. I sang songs to the spirits and coasted easily through a military checkpoint on the far side.

View of Alvarado, Veracruz from the bridge. Photo by David Cabrera.

The terrain started out gentle—and extremely green. Open fields had been carved out of the jungle, and little farms crowded the highway. Even when I just stopped to gulp water or adjust my ear buds, a man came out of the nearest farmhouse to chat with me. It was a nice stretch of land.

The Rainstorm

The weather was a bit less inviting. Grey rain clouds chased up behind me or ahead of me for much of the day, threatening over and over but then moving on unspent. I actually felt drops at a gas station in a small town, but only long enough to interrupt my snack.

Still, the constant threat of rain makes the road a little more wearying. Every time you pass a restaurant or village you think, should I stop here till the rain passes? But it’s not actually raining, so you push on even if you need a rest, hoping to make the next stop before the clouds break.

That’s exactly what happened when the torrent finally came, about mid-afternoon. I had just passed up a shrimp cocktail and a beer at a little palapa when I felt the rain. It seemed light at first, and I pushed on, but soon I had to pull over and stow my electronics. The verdict was in: I was getting soaked.

As I’ve written before, rain on a bicycle is not actually uncomfortable (it can be refreshing) but it comes with problems. The brakes barely work; you and your machine get covered in grit; you’re less visible to drivers; the water gets in your eyes. I really don’t mind if I go through a short rainstorm, but it gets old quickly.

This one sort of split the difference. It came fast and heavy, then let up a little but kept falling. On the plus side, there was almost no traffic. I guess everyone stopped for shrimp cocktails but me.

This was when the terrain got wild. I noticed I was going uphill a lot more, but in the rainstorm I kept my head down and eyes forward. It’s only when the rain let up that I coasted to a stop to drink some water. And that’s when I saw it.

Gems of Brown and Green

I had just come to a break in the jungle. There was a clear view of the hills beyond. And they weren’t hills; they could have been painted for a fantasy storybook. Everything was awash in fog, and there in a hole in the clouds loomed tall brown cliffs built of endless jagged facets, each one the green of moss, like chocolate-tinted emeralds above me. It reached to the heavens, and with nothing but fog beyond, the top of this range seemed to be the end of the earth itself.

A thrill washed through me.

I stood there some minutes, simply admiring creation. Then the fog closed back around those cliffs, and it was nothing but me and the jungle and the long, grey road. I drank my water and continued on.

Brutal Biking

The rain had slowed my progress, and from there on the hills would slow it even more. The area had been formed by volcanoes, its ups and downs scars from past upheavals. There was nothing gentle about them; the road ascended at crazy, unsafe angles and my lot was to muscle over each one.

I tried to remember how many hills the topo tool had flagged red on my route, and count them off as I summitted. It was hopeless. There was nothing but hills out there. My body wore down, my knees throbbed, and afternoon slipped toward evening.

There were towns along the way. I passed through Santiago Tuxtla, nestled in a valley, at that golden hour of late afternoon. The clouds had parted and everything glistened like silver and brass. I sang songs and hurried through the town center, only to throw myself against another massive hill on the far side. I passed hotels going up that slope, but didn’t stop.

It was only 8 kilometers to the next town but that meant eight more peaks, like biking over dragon’s teeth. It was sunset when I reached San Andrés Tuxtla, a small city, the last one before Catemaco.

There I had a difficult decision. My knees were on fire. I was drooping out of the saddle, having used more energy in these 50 miles than in some 80 mile days, and I hadn’t had a proper lunch. Right next to the road as I came into town was a hotel. All I had to do was check in and I’d be done for the night.

But that meant so many things: not reaching Catemaco. Having to do more of this cycling tomorrow. Not getting to use tomorrow for work (overdue) and exploring (yes please!).

My stubbornness kicked in. I was going all the way. But I did need energy, and I swooped into a convenience store where I got chocolate covered almonds, something carby, and a Gatorade. I must have looked undead stumbling in there. I shoved the food in my mouth like a goblin, and in 60 seconds I was gone.

A little of my energy came back, but San Andrés was a big city. It was nearly dark by the time I got through. By the outlying village of Sihuapán, almost more like an outskirt, I was cursing myself for not just taking the hotel.

Darkness settled upon the road and now those hills and curves held a new menace. I had all my lights on, but had to keep a close eye on the rear view mirror to make sure I wouldn’t be run down. If the whole day had been physically exhausting, my choice to continue in the dark now made it mentally exhausting, too.

Somewhere in those bleary hours I passed very close to the great volcano that created this shattered land. I never saw it, but I know its contours well.

At long last I found myself cruising into the outskirts of Catemaco. I had reached the City of Sorcerers! There was a blissful downhill stretch (the city is at the edge of a lake) and then I hit the centro. Huge crowds milled about enjoying music and snacks. It was packed, something I hadn’t expected.

Which led to one final snag of the evening. The first hotel I tried was completely full. I’d never had this happen in Mexico before. I tried a second one, and was told the same thing.

Suddenly it occurred to me that New Year’s Eve was just around the corner and I might not be the only one who wanted to spend it in Witchcraft City. What if the whole town was full?

Fortunately it wasn’t. I was shown to a room at the Hotel “Berthangel” (Bertha the Angel?) that was perfectly fine. It had a balcony with a view of the centro, which made it loud as heck, and the wi-fi wasn’t great—but it’d do.

I was so tired I didn’t even go in search of food. I grabbed a seat at the hotel’s second floor restaurant which sold only two dishes: hamburgers and hot dogs.

“Which do you recommend?” I asked.

Definitely the hamburger,” the waitress said.

She wasn’t kidding. The burger was fine, and the french fries were so good I wasn’t sure what country I was in. She brought me a succession of miniature bottles of beer, and an hour later I was sound asleep. 61.7 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 61.7.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4,171.

Next time I get to explore the city firsthand and see if I can rustle up any of these famous sorcerers. Until then, check out my other road logs or get yourself a postcard.

 

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