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

The Sun-Drenched Streets of Campeche

Previously on Rogue Priest, I hopped islands on a beach road to reach the city of Campeche. Now it’s time to go behind the giant medieval walls and explore this colonial port of call.

Campeche. Photo by  Andre.

Campeche. Photo by Andre.

January 24-27 (Days 932-935 of the Great Adventure)—Campeche Days

The hotel room was the best I’d had. Twelve foot ceilings, colonial tiles, a wrought iron grille on the windows, and a view of the sunny courtyard. It didn’t last long though: each day I had to check with the front desk and see if they needed to bump me, making way for a guest paying full price. I never did get kicked out, but after two nights they moved me to a smaller room.

View from my hotel room (Thanks, Hotel Castelmar!). Photo by Andre.

View from my hotel room (Thanks, Hotel Castelmar!). Photo by Andre.

In four days in Campeche I almost never left the old city. Wrapped up in its ancient walls, the old city is maybe five blocks by eight and simply simmers with history. All the streets are cobbled, all the houses are pastel, and every structure is from the colonial days. There is a beautiful central plaza and at least one pedestrian walking mall.

Three of the four sides of the old city still have the original walls, or at least some semblance of them. In places they have been restored and even enhanced with mosaics of tiny pebbles or shells. Elsewhere it’s exactly as time has left it: battered by cannon and rain. The back end of the old city has one of the original parapets complete with cannon embrasures and a mini pirate ship where tourists and local teenagers snap pictures of themselves. Instead of a hungry army of pirates, a public market lurks just outside.

Parapet and gatehouse. Photo by Andre.

This is seriously how you get to the market. Photo by Andre.

Yucatán’s Lost Port

The pirate theme is not just a marketing tactic. Campeche was the first major port of the Yucatán, back when it was part of Yucatán and not the capital of its own separate state. The massive walls were built to repel raiders, and did their job well.

Yucatán’s main export was originally sugar. By the 1800s however rope, made from a plant called hennequin, was the bigger cash crop. That was a problem for Campeche: the hennequin plantations were far to the north, and soon opened their own port town, Sisal. (And yes, that’s why sisal twine is called that even today.)

The lost commerce was not Campeche’s only problem, however. Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, was determined to win a war against rebel Mayans, and they expected Campeche to help. The war lasted for fifty years. The rebels, sick of being serfs on plantations, successfully established their own independent Mayan nation deep in the jungle. They fought off Yucatecan/Mexican armies and marched on Mérida itself. The Mayans were just days from reconquering their entire ancestral homeland, when the first summer rains arrived and they went home to go plant corn.

(If you’re wondering how I know all this, you might enjoy this book. Thanks Alberto!)

The point is, the war was long, costly and divisive. Eventually Campeche split off from Yucatán which is why it has its own state even today. (The Mayan nation, on the other hand, was eventually destroyed.)

View of Campeche from atop the wall. Photo by Andre.

View of Campeche from atop the wall. Photo by Andre.

Climbing the Walls with Dr. Fun

It took me a little while to realize that you can actually go on top of the walls. I haven’t had great experiences with this—when I scaled a rampart in Thailand I found out it was a breeding ground for rats—but I rarely learn my lesson and quickly sniffed out the entrance. I’m glad I did. Campeche’s walls are reached by stairs at what was probably once a gatehouse and is now a museum. I entered its courtyard watched closely by a security guard and two women at a table. I expected an entrance fee but, unique in Mexico, they only wanted me to sign a guest book saying what country I’m from. Admission is free.

Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Campeche. Photo by Andre.

I went up on the walls several times during my stay. Only one section is accessible, but it’s great: a view of the Gulf, real battlements, even little cupulas for shade (it closes at sunset, which seems like a shame given what a great makeout place it would be).

The walls were never crowded, but I did meet one American couple there. When I mentioned my website, the man said, “Well Rogue Priest, I’m Dr. Fun.” Literally—he has a Ph.D. in Recreation Studies. They invited me to dinner at a seafood restaurant but I had a feeling it would be far too expensive and we’d get far too drunk. Our paths never crossed again.

Me with statues in Campeche.

Me with statues in Campeche.

Around Every Corner

You can tell a lot about a city by its approach to public art. The worst have none; the merely bad cities commission a few public pieces and vet the designs. The result is bland and often confounding. The best cities provide a theme or event and allow artists to interpret as they see fit. That’s how you get a city-wide sculpture garden, with something to discover around every corner.

Thus Campeche. Statues of human figures by a variety of artists were scattered through the streets and plazas and walking malls, always grabbing the eye and pulling you just a little farther along. Here’s an example:

Photo by Andre.

Photo by Andre.

The cuisine was also amazing. I didn’t have to go on my usual pizza hunt to find an alternative to tacos, because seafood was cheap and abundant. I had fish pretty much every night, and great salads or smoothies from a veg place by day. There was even a cozy, artsy little coffee shop just two streets from the hotel.

Walking mall in Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Walking mall in Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Needs More Americans

Campeche is among the most beautiful cities in the Americas, but the tourists there are almost all Europeans. That surprises me. I know not all Americans spend their whole holiday on the beach; we’re a people who love to explore. But most of us never seem to get over to this side of the peninsula, which is a shame. Dr. Fun and his wife rented a car and made Campeche their first big stop on a tour of the little beach towns. I think that’s a great plan and would recommend it for anyone planning a flight into Cancún.

I found myself a little in love with Campeche, so much so that I started looking at apartment listings and house prices. It was hard to believe I was living so large, in such a breathtaking place, when just a week earlier I was trapped in a hotel with ripped knees and a fever.

Clearly I could have stayed in this city much longer, but the road was calling. My end point was just a few dasy’ ride away. So next time I’ll take to the road toward Mérida—and discover a very different kind of Mayan pueblo.

Until then, check out all my road logs or become a supporter.

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

To the Pirate Walls of Campeche

Last time I rejoined the Gulf coast, crashed a political rally, and got kicked out of a hotel. Now I continue my flight along beach roads and islands, headed toward Campeche.

Sunset in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

Sunset in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

Tuesday, January 20 (Day 928 of the Great Adventure)—To Isla Aguada

Breakfast was a quick affair at a diner on the main square. Soon I was loaded up and weaved my way out of town. Ciudad del Carmen is a city on an island, but I wasn’t crossing back to the mainland the way I came; instead I’d chase up along the barrier islands using bridges and coastal roads.

I made some poor navigational choices trying to get out of the city, and was impressed by the amount of traffic. After some factories however—including one with a Coca-Cola logo—it was pretty much just me and the iguanas. On my left side was the beach, endless miles of it, big turquoise waves rolling in from the sunny sea. Walls lined all of the beaches, made out of loose rocks stacked in rectangular mesh cages, probably to hold off high water. Lizards loved the mesh and scattered over the wall as I biked past. I didn’t see many swimmers, but I did notice one semi truck parked in the middle of nowhere, driver missing, just a few feet from a break in the wall. I like the way that guy takes his breaks.

Today’s destination would be Isla Aguada, which I translate as “Flooded Island,” not exactly a confidence inspirer. It was early afternoon when I reached the bridge from Carmen’s Island to Isla Aguada. It was a long, curving affair over turbulent seas, currents with different colored water coming from three directions and mixing into a froth. I paused to admire the sea halfway across.

After the magic of the bridge, the grit of the island was hard to believe. Isla Aguada is a hardscrabble place with few jobs and little money. The coastal road is the main drag, passing through a checkpoint just after the bridge where commercial trucks pay a toll. Other than that there isn’t much to see, though I did spot a seafood stand under a giant red tent, and stopped for some fresh caught lunch.

The seafood tent in Isla Aguada. Photo by Andre.

The seafood tent in Isla Aguada. Photo by Andre.

Then I checked out hotels. Given how badly my last beach day went, I wanted to stay somewhere nice and I was willing to spend a little more than usual to do so. I found the perfect place, a gorgeous suite with my own hammock and a private porch with a thatched roof, all for just $700 pesos. Just one snag: no wifi (which I found so hard to believe at this fancy hotel that I made the owner repeat herself). But I had no client work due right away, so I decided to accept the ultimate privation and go for a day without internet. (Well, mostly; my phone still worked.)

It started with a trip to the beach. This is a lot less exciting than it sounds. First you walk three blocks through a really poor town, the only tourist in the place. Then you reach the giant abandoned beach that has the ruins of old concession stands and wonder if it was converted to a naval artillery range. Reassured by spotting one solitary Mexican family on 11 straight miles of beach, you wade across pebbles and floating litter into turbulent, silty water. It reminded me of a beach in the Dominican Republic where some fish kept taking bites out of me, protected from retribution by the cloudy water. This time I suffered no such attacks, only the hands of a particularly wicked tide that wanted to drag me slantwise along the shore, toward the bridge and the foamy mixer of the open bay.

It was pretty fun.

I let the current carry me for a few minutes, covering a half mile of shoreline, then waded ashore and walked back, repeating the process several times. I also made offerings to the sea.

I spent late afternoon in my hammock and reading. I texted a lot with my friend Urban. Urban had become increasingly important to me on this trip. I’d made a deal to check in with him via text message every night, so that someone somewhere in the world knew I was safe. He had become something like my guardian angel, my Siri, and my mission control all rolled into one. And frequently he was my only sympathetic ear in a bad situation. Urban, if you’re reading this, thank you.

I asked the hotel owner if she could recommend somewhere for dinner. She mentioned a place with “really good pizza” just two streets away, and I set out to find it. After a recent string of impressive non-Mexican meals, I though I would try it. This is what I found:

Hot doog and soda. Photo by Andre.

Hot doog and soda, y’all. Photo by Andre.

The string was broken. 27.5 miles.

Map.

January 21 (Day 929 of the Great Adventure)—To Sabancuy

Morning confirmed a new trend: if you ask a restaurant whether they serve breakfast, they say yes even if they don’t. Even if they have no eggs and no breakfast dishes. Basically they’re just willing to serve you lunch any hour you want. This seems to be a quirk of Campeche and the Yucatán; I don’t think it would fly in central Mexico.

So it took some doing, but I eventually found a semi-outdoors meal counter that had eggs in the house. Some rancheros and a little Nescafé got me in good shape for the road. Not that I got moving early—I shot a video tour of the Giant for supporters and enjoyed the hammock a little longer. I didn’t get on the road till 2 p.m.

It was a short ride, though. More great scenery: strange currents criss-crossing offshore, copses of palm trees guarding the beach, a few closed beachside eateries, iguanas invisible until they moved, and so few cars that I biked on the wrong side of the road. To my left was open water, to my right was jungle.

Within about two hours that jungle had given way to a direct view of the lagoon protected by the island. It was the opposite of the open Gulf: sheltered, still, more green than blue, covered in marsh grass and bird life and small fishing boats. My destination for the night, Sabancuy, was somewhere out there.

By 4:30 I reached the turnoff. Leaving the Gulf behind I crossed the lagoon on a series of causeways—at least five—and approached the town. Its ancient church and small central square are the first things that greet you as you roll in. Rumors of hotels were scarce, but I navigated to a place mentioned in a couple online reviews. It looked nice out the outside shabby on the inside, and had wi-fi in the lobby only.

After a shower I got a delicious dinner of alambre at a local taco restaurant. This time I did have client work, so I sat in the hotel lobby tapping on my laptop till it was time for the hotel staff to close up.

Although not well known, Sabancuy has a claim to fame: sea turtles. The surrounding lagoon is their nesting ground, and a local university has a program to protect the eggs and bolster the species’ dwindling numbers. Anyone who visits there can volunteer to help, collecting eggs by hand and moving them to protected places. But this wasn’t turtle season, so I had to content myself with a beautiful sunset and the sounds of the lagoon at night:

(Supporters get access to all my videos!)

26.2 miles.

Map.

Shop in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

Shop in Sabancuy. Photo by Andre.

January 22 (Day 930 of the Great Adventure)—To Champotón

Shabby or not, the hotel had a cute enough little dining room, and for the sake of convenience I decided to eat there. I’m glad—the fruit plate that came out was amazing, the kind of mouth-watering fresh fruits that make me wonder why anybody buys sweets in the tropics.

I had still been icing my knees at night, and had no soreness to speak of. Today’s ride took about five hours and aimed at Champotón, a larger town right where the flat coastal plains give way to a more hilly region. It was my last day of constant, unadulterated beach views and I soaked it up with joy.

Beautiful church possibly in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

Beautiful church possibly in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

Champotón itself was a bit disconcerting. Maybe every town has its own attitude, or maybe it’s just luck of the draw on who you meet, but people here seemed surprised to see a foreigner and more than a little uninterested. That surprised me—it was (slightly) larger and more cosmopolitan than my last two stopping points. The heat had also gotten to me, and I was not eager to spend the entire afternoon following vague directions to questionable hotels.

So I took the first decent place I found. It was an old colonial building with a view of the sea and gorgeous grounds. Yet some strange contrasts: for example, the king size bed had a plush velvet bedspread but no under-sheet. Apparently you were supposed to lay directly on the bare mattress. (I chose instead to sleep on top of the bedspread, a spare blanket over me.)

I walked down to a string of seafood stands along the malecón, the owners vying for my attention and shouting their menus at me. The seafood was good and fresh and I washed it down with some house made agua fresca (fruit drink). 42.3 miles.

This hotel believes in tiles and mahogany but not bed sheets. Photo by Andre.

This hotel believes in tiles and mahogany but not bed sheets. Photo by Andre.

Map.

Friday, January 23 (Day 931 of the Great Adventure)—To Campeche

Owing to the heat and a headwind, yesterday’s 40 miles had been a bit of a slog. The wind shifted in the night, and the earlier I left the longer I’d get a tailwind before it died. But early is relative; after finding a breakfast place, eating way too much in their courtyard, and loading up the bike it was just after 11:00 a.m.

Today was one of those days where I took a longer route because it would be prettier. A main highway cut inland straight toward Campeche, but the winding coastal road looked a lot more interesting.

The first stretch looked almost like Ireland: sea cliffs on one side, the tropical equivalent of heath on the other, occasional thatch-roofed huts clinging to the hills in the wind. The road was narrow with no shoulder and plenty of traffic, also not unlike Ireland.

This is a real ad in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

This is a real ad in Champotón. Photo by Andre.

After a while the terrain got woodsy and hilly. I soared past wattle cottages and spooked chickens in the road. I stopped to buy oranges from a fruit stand in the village of Villa Madero. The vendor charged me double for what few bruised oranges he had left. Only after I parted with my pesos did I see shining ripe mandarinas at the fruit stand next door.

Winding roads eventually brought me to the fishing town of Seybaplaya, one of the most picturesque in Mexico. I rolled through the streets, weaving uphill on narrow lanes, and made a second stop for a snack and Powerade. Eventually I reached the top of the town and joined a lesser highway, still no shoulder, but much less traffic now.

It was the final run to Campeche. The approach is quite beautiful. The road is beachside, and you go through the outlying town of Lerma with its cute restaurants and nice houses. I stopped at one such restaurant hoping for a seafood cocktail… but they didn’t have them! I should’ve known it would be no good from the sign that read, “Mexican Grill” in English. I left without ordering.

Campeche itself is a sight. It’s a true city, but there’s no sprawl along the beach road, just a malecón and high end restaurants. I found my way to the old city—the historic downtown surrounded by giant stone walls.

For centuries, Campeche was the major port of Yucatán. It was also a frequent target of pirates. The city’s massive walls and big guns made it virtually unassailable, and despite several attempts the pirates never did manage to raid the city.

Those walls are still there today, carefully restored with a million slivers of stone forming mosaics on every surface. I passed through the wall and gawked. Historic Campeche is like being on a movie set, except everything is real.

Everything, that is, except the hotel prices. I wandered into a well-reviewed 400-year old building and hesitantly approached the desk. Just then I noticed a sign with the prices:

Single room…. $1150/night

“Oh,” I said to the concierge, laughing. “Nevermind. Thank you.”

“Wait,” he said. “How many nights do you need?”

“Two or three.”

He shrugged. “How about $550 a night?”

Ka-ching. This is the advantage of not booking in advance: if they have rooms they need to fill, they might give you a deal. I agreed and soon had been shown into the all-around most beautiful hotel room of the entire trip.

I showered, found food, and realized I might be here a lot more than two nights. 41.2 miles.

Map. (Note: The loop in the route is accurate. Is that cheating to include that? I don’t think so, that’s how I biked it.)

Total traveled this leg: 137.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4528.3 miles.

Next time I’ll explore the wall, the Mayan cultural museum, and the creepy but beautiful statues that haunt the alleys of downtown. Until then, become a supporter to get the video logs or check out past stories from the road.

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Ask Me Anything, Mexico, Travel

Is There Anything Besides Nescafe in Mexico?

Pixi asked:

“Out of curiosity, how often did you find places that had coffee that was not Nescafé on your trip? I was under the impression that was pretty rare.”

This question made me smile. I have consumed a lot of Nescafé.

I poked fun at this a few times in the road logs, and Pixi was with me for the first three Nes-tastic days. If you’ve never had the pleasure, Nescafé is an instant coffee product (made by Nestle) which dominates the Latin American cheap-coffee market. It’s pretty bad, and it was the only coffee Pixi and I experienced for that first week, even at restaurants.

Café de olla (definitely NOT Nescafé). Photo via Fumi Chronicles.

Answer: It depends. In Mexico, anytime you’re in a city it is easy to find “real” coffee (which is to say coffee not made from powder, but often still as bad as a bad diner). On the other hand, in villages or on the road it’s almost always Nescafé. The exception is when a place has café de olla, common in the central highlands, which is brewed in a pot with spices and way too much sugar.

However, even in the cities if you go to a cheap open-air place it could be Nescafé and there are actual coffee houses with super good coffee… so you have options.

To be clear, Nescafé is probably no worse than any other instant coffee powder. But in the US, even the cheapest truckstop wouldn’t hand you a spoonful of instant coffee, whereas in Mexico most cheaper places are basically someone’s front living room and they’re giving you whatever their family uses.

I got used to it pretty quick. I’ve had some friends say that they would just skip coffee altogether if they couldn’t get “real” coffee, but those friends are clearly not coffee addicts. Plus, I like doing things the way the locals around me do them, and being a coffee snob in a small desert village is probably not a great way to make friends.

Do you have  question? Ask me anything.

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

Too Dirty for Her Bed By Far

The last few weeks had been the low point of the trip, with a serious knee injury, food poisoning, and some not-so-welcoming towns. I was done exploring Villahermosa and wondered if the road ahead would be different. It should be all beaches and islands as I followed the coast to Campeche. Even the rain had stopped. I felt a new sense of hope and turned north.

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

One of a kind roadside shrine. Photo by André.

Sunday, January 18 (Day 926 of the Great Adventure)—To the Coast

Early morning found me in the parking lot of Choco’s Hotel, still covered in puddles. I frowned. Despite my thorough cleaning of the Giant’s gears and chains, he wouldn’t shift right. I had 50 miles ahead, and was eager to get moving, but it was six days to Campeche. If the derailleur (gear shifter) needed replacing, this was the time to do it.

But first things first. I ate breakfast at the hotel, emptied my room and loaded everything on the bike. Google showed only two bike shops in town, one of them a mere four blocks away. Off I went.

The mechanic at the shop immediately put my fears to rest. Neither of us understood any of the words the other one used, but we communicated perfectly. He said the problem would be solved if we just shortened the chain, and I strongly disagreed. (As always happens when I disagree with a Mexican bike mechanic, he quickly proved me wrong.)

Four minutes and a few pesos later I had a shorter chain and gears that shifted perfectly. As he worked he made small talk about famous racing cyclists, none of whom I recognized. (I even missed Lance Armstrong, though that was due to his accent.) My lack of racing trivia made him skeptical that I would reach South America.

Back on the streets I wove through heavy traffic, counting off the blocks so I’d know when to turn. A white-skinned guy with filthy blond hair spotted me and gave out a massive victory roar. I held my fist up and soared on. It’s weird, but he really picked me up. I guess it was just nice to know that someone else in this corner of Mexico understood the drive for adventure. White people are messed up.

The ride itself was a dream. 50 miles and no knee pain to speak of, plus the surroundings were sublime. Lush savanna gave way to coastal marshes, dotted with pockets of tropical forest. It was so green and the air smelled so fresh that I pulled over just to bask in it. The day was sunny and very warm, but I carried plenty of water.

Today’s destination was Frontera, a coastal town near the Tabasco/Campeche state line (frontera means “border” in Spanish). It’s situated at the mouth of a river, and I crossed the water on a high bridge just before sunset, again awed by the beauty of nature.

It was still light when I rolled into town and I picked out the least shabby of three hotels. There was no way to bring the Giant up the steep, narrow staircase to the hotel, but the owner promised me they had parking “just around the corner.” She grabbed the key and offered to show me the way.

Around the corner meant go two blocks, hang a left, and go another block. She unlocked a door big enough to admit a Caterpillar; beyond was a walled yard that could have easily housed an outdoor Wal-Mart. A few parking spots to one side had a roof, so I chained the Giant up there and made sure I had everything I needed. Clearly I wasn’t coming back till morning.

I followed the sound of music to a small pizza/burger place on the square (also on the second story—is this a thing?). I enjoyed a “Texas Burger,” which has all the fixings that we’d call a “South of the Border” burger in the States, and some deep-fried mozzarella sticks, a sight that brought tears to my eyes.

I got back to the hotel room early and put myself to bed. 51.1 miles.

Map.

Breakfast in Frontera. I'm hooked on motuleños.

Breakfast in Frontera. I’m hooked on motuleños.

January 19 (Day 927 of the Great Adventure)—The Island City

It turns out Frontera is an oil town, and morning brought a surge of oil workers in bright orange uniforms, probably finishing up some shore leave and getting ready to go back to a platform. Travel hint: if all the oil workers in town go to the same cafe for breakfast, try that cafe.

The road out of was beautiful again, though hotter and more miles than yesterday. I crossed the state border in late morning and discovered a one of a kind roadside shrine on a strip of highway flanked by marsh. Sometimes I would hear a horrendous sloshing in the marsh, and discovered that cattle ranching is just as big on the coast as it is in the desert—you just let the cattle waddle through the swamp to graze. Once, even a horse came splashing through the foliage.

Later I turned into the small town of Nuevo Progreso looking for lunch. This was not a town that usually gets visitors, and I couldn’t go 50 meters without someone yelling “GUERRO! GUERRO!”

The main street had no eateries but I discovered Gisela’s, an open air kiosk in a park. It’s the kind of place with no menu, just one plate of the day. Gisela apologized because today’s was chicken with a spicy sauce, and she was surprised when I excitedly ordered it. The real treat was fresh “agua de piña” (ice cold pineapple juice). I drank a liter.

After lunch I asked Gisela if she had a bathroom.

“Ah,” she said. “Here’s what you do. See that fruit stand over there? You go ask that lady for the key. Then you go into that collapsed warehouse and just walk on through. Don’t worry, just go all the way through. On the other side you look for the public market, and inside the market there’s a locked bathroom.”

I started in disbelief and she repeated the directions. I’m pretty sure the fruit stand lady had to repeat them as well. From the smell inside the collapsed warehouse, that’s as far as most hombres get, but I followed the treasure map and eventually did my business in a real porcelain toilet (sans flush).

Gisela at her kiosk in Nuevo Progreso, Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Gisela at her kiosk in Nuevo Progreso, Campeche. Photo by Andre.

Late afternoon brought cooler temperatures and I whisked on at high speed—much faster than the cars and buses, which were backed up in a traffic jam stretching for miles. This seemed odd out in the country, but eventually I found the cause. A rally was happening at the small town of Atasta, and had fully blocked the road.

I try to steer clear of political events in foreign countries. Rather than crossing the picket line I dismounted and walked around the edge of the crowd. When I was nearly to the other side, I finally caught someone’s attention.

“GUERRO! GUERRO!” he yelled.

The cry spread. Several hundred protesting Mexicans turned their eyes on me. I did what any savvy traveler would do: I put on a giant friendly grin.

Someone in the crowd let out a resounding, “VIVA MEXICO!”

I struck a pose, raising a fist in victory salute to the patriotic cry. Everyone in the crowd laughed and I got out of there.

After that the roads were clear. It was forest on both sides with a sparkling lake just past the forest. The pine trees and lake reminded me of Michigan.

It was basically dusk when I reached the shore of the Gulf, the first time I’d seen it in weeks. Out in the water were the twinkling lights of Ciudad del Carmen, a city on an island. A long bridge stretches from mainland to city, and I crossed that bridge in the dark, pausing to hear the gentle lapping waters and thinking of my night landing by kayak.

In town I had set my rights on a hotel that looked good online. I rolled the bicycle into the lobby and approached a painted young lady behind the counter (protected by elegant iron bars). I asked to see a room.

“I can’t show you one,” she said.

“Are you out of rooms?”

“No, we have plenty.”

“Then…?”

At first I thought the issue was that she was alone, and didn’t go alone to rooms with strange men. That’s a fair consideration. But after some back and forth, I think what she was telling me was this:

“To me, you look dirty, and if I let you go into a room you might dirty it up.”

Son of a.

I very carefully chose some Spanish words about how she looked, but bit them back. Instead I politely told her that I would look for another hotel. I then stretched out on one of the upholstered lobby chairs and pulled out my iphone, going through Google reviews and checking the location of each one on my map. She was visibly uncomfortable that I was there. I took my time.

Eventually I did find a better place, with much friendlier lobby staff. Ciudad del Carmen is a real city, if a small one, and has a beautiful centro. The thing about island cities is that they’re never spawled out, and are almost always better for it. I spent the evening exploring and had a burger at a local pub. 62.5 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 113.6 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4391.1 miles.

Next time it’s iguanas, beaches, and the sweetest little stretch of road of the whole trip. Until then check out my past road logs or become a supporter.

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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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