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

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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The Gates of Veracruz

Last time I fell in love with the city of Xalapa, even while spending Christmas alone. This time I leave my new love affair behind, making hard for Veracruz.

The skyline of either Veracruz or Corpus Christi. Photo by André.

The skyline of either Veracruz or Corpus Christi. Photo by André.

December 26 (Day 903 of the Great Adventure)—To Veracruz

A little geography is in order. Up till now my Mexico adventure has been inland; no saltwater since I turned west in Texas. But after San Miguel de Allende I’d been heading east, aiming back toward the Gulf of Mexico. Xalapa is in the mountains just above the coast, only an hour’s drive by car. It’s substantially longer by bicycle.

My goal as I rolled out of Xalapa was to reach the city of Veracruz, a port city, which would give me my first glimpse of the sea in months. I’d grab a hotel in Boca del Río, a beach resort area just outside Veracruz proper. As you can imagine I was pretty excited about this idea—I even expected to take a rest day in Boca to enjoy the beach.

From the start, however, I was feeling low. Something I’d written had hurt a friend of mine. It was unintentional, of course, but I regretted it. I had a heavy heart that day.

The ride itself was pleasant enough, but it was no downhill roller coaster. I still get tingly thinking about the mad race down the mountains to Xalapa. At 5,000 feet above sea level I expected another exhilarating drop, but this 5,000 feet stretches over a much greater distance, not steep at all. And less than halfway through I’d be at elevation 0, back to normal biking.

Still, the section out of the gate was nice enough. I found my way out of town, still not spotting a single slum, and zipped down mountainsides with the scent of flowering trees. [Andre’s note: I didn’t know it, but it was just as I left Xalapa that I pedaled my 4,000th mile.]

Once down on “flat” land the pedaling got harder. It wasn’t flat at all, of course, but hilly, and mostly deserted. It suited my mood. I labored over ridges in the hot sun, certainly noticing the difference from the cool highlands. The route involved several river crossings. The first one, still in the mountains a bit, was a green abyss below me, breathtaking to look into. I readied my camera for the next one, but it looked no different from any brown, silty river in the world.

I had decided to go all the way from Xalapa to Boca del Río in one day, counting on the downhill to make it easy. With the unexpected terrain, a late start, and half-hearted pedaling, it was sunset before I reached the city.

It turns out Veracruz is a fuming port town, and I entered on the main highway. The heavy traffic wasn’t my only pain, however. Apparently emotional dark clouds run in pairs. I had sent an apology to the friend I’d offended, but at the same time I was dealing with trouble on the love front. I remember stopping every five minutes or so, stepping off the highway, and checking my phone for the latest message. Certainly not how I’d pictured my triumphant arrival at the beach.

I reached Boca del Río well after dark. I hadn’t made any hotel reservations, preferring to see my options in person as usual. But now it was late, and anything charming about the beaches and resorts was lost on me. It was just ominous buildings with neon signs and traffic speeding by. I chose one that had a low price advertised on the sign (low by beach standards) and walked in.

15 minutes later, having gulped water and checked out a decent-seeming room, I prepared to pay. The manager told me the price… which was half again what the sign said.

I pointed this out.

“Oh, that’s out of date.”

I glowered. My mind filled with the Spanish words for So you’re a liar. Then the words for No problem, I’ll just take the sign down. And then my mind groped about for the words I really wanted: Either you give me the price or I break ALL of these windows. 

But past those windows was the long busy street lined with overpriced hotels, the one I’d already ridden up and down three times. He could see I was exhausted, and how late it was. The smug son of a bitch had me.

“Fine,” I said, and paid him his inflated price. I then rolled the Giant into my little one-night vacation rental, big enough for a family of six, feeling more alone than ever. All I wanted was to eat and then veg out online.

The wifi didn’t work, of course. But the restaurant had wine. 69.3 miles.

Map.

The main church in Varado still lit up for Christmas. Photo by André.

The main church in Varado still lit up for Christmas. Photo by André.

December 27 (Day 904 of the Great Adventure)—To Alvarado

I got up in the morning already knowing that I wasn’t staying for the “beach day” I’d planned; it wasn’t worth the price and I didn’t like the vibe of the highly developed resort area. I figured I would find better beaches up ahead.

But I thought it would be silly not to at least walk down to the water and see it before I pushed on. I ate a decent breakfast at the hotel restaurant and then strolled across the street.

To understand the awfulness of Boca del Río, let me offer a visual. Ia beautiful beach. Now imagine that all the hotels want to be close to it, so they all build along it. And there must be a road for traffic to reach the hotels, of course. So imagine this: the road is between the hotels and the beach.

That’s right. Every hotel opens onto a four-lane divided highway full of fast, noisy vehicles. And these fast, noisy vehicles zoom past every inch of sandy beach, meaning you’re essentially sunning yourself on a freeway. It’s tasty.

After waiting six minutes for a a break in traffic I scampered across the road and down to the beach. The sand is dingy and pebbly, and giant piles of rocks stick far out into the water at regular intervals. I walked along one of these rock piles and made offerings to the sea, whom I had sincerely missed.

I also marveled at how much the Veracruz skyline looks like that of Corpus Christi. Corpus was far behind me now, 700 north as the gull flies; but both are Gulf cities, both are primarily oil/port towns that dabble as vacation spots, and although Veracruz was warmer they’re hard to tell apart.

After taking a short video of the beach—in which I’m sure I looked far too unenthusiastic—I crossed the highway (another six minutes) and gathered my things and set out.

I took heart as I considered my route. I’d be following the Gulf coast now, right along the sea. At first the roads were crowded with resort traffic, then I passsed a giant shopping center and slogged up a highway bridge over an inlet. But I made my escape. First the active resorts, then the resorts under construction, and finally even the gravel pits were behind me. It wasn’t exactly beach on my left, jungle on my right—more like dunes on both sides—but it was nice.

I took a longcut, going out of my way to stick to the coastline. I’m glad I did. Soon there was little traffic and I entered a beach town. The Blonde Guy, Blonde Girl ice cream shop beckoned as I stopped to gulp some water. From there on the biking was good.

The state of Veracruz is different from inland Mexico. A few things stand out:

  • Palapas, or thatch-roofed buildings, are everywhere. Palapas are usually open-sided and they’re used as pavilions, as outdoor eateries, or the same way Americans use porches, for enjoying the evening breeze.
  • Everything from the way houses are built to the types of food available reminded me more of the Caribbean than central Mexico.
  • Speaking of which, chicken was now the main dish advertised most places. In the central highlands—rancher territory—you can’t go a half kilometer without a sign for grilled steak. Here, the aroma of grilled pollo filled the air along the roadsides.
  • People gave me a lot of weird looks. For whatever reason, in most of the highlands people took me in stride: a güero on a bicycle was unusual, but not Twilight Zone unusual. In rural Veracruz people stared in perplexity, as if Santa Muerte herself were riding by.

A second town, farther along the road, marked the edge of a Mexican naval base and a turn in the road. I followed along, popping through yet another village and a little crafts shop at the crossroads with the main highway. I became very taken by the beautiful terrain, even with the sand pits and potholes along the way. It was around here that I took one of my favorite video logs of the trip, bouncing down the sandy road, which you can see by becoming a supporter.

It was nearly sunset when I reached Varado, my destination for the night. Varado is sandwiched between the open Gulf and a major lagoon, water on two sides. It’s also, of course, on a giant hill. Just as my spirits were lagging a Mexican woman sitting outside a house waved and blew me a kiss. Her relatives cracked up laughing, as did I. It was a joke, but she had me beaming.

I passed up a roadside hotel and chose to go all the way into the centro and look around. It paid off. After a cruise down the malecón (waterfront walk), I found the central jardín and a little hotel just off of it. This place was a real flophouse, but the kid at the front counter was friendly and the price was good. Oddly, surrounded by friendly faces and paying a fair price, I felt far happier sleeping on that hard mattress than I had at the beachside resort the night before.

My night was rounded out by some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten and a stroll through the jardín, still lit up in outrageous neon colors for Christmas. 42.9 miles.

Map. (It’s off by one block at the very end. I actually took Joaquín Martínez.)

Total traveled this leg: 112.2 miles.

Total traveled since Day 1: 4109.3.

Next time a rainshower refreshes my soul, volcanic mountains tear up my knees, and if I’m lucky I just might make it to the City of Sorcerers. Until then, become a supporter or check out the other road logs.

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This Is Why I Love Xalapa

Last time I ascended a stunning mountain road and then rocketed down the slope to the jungle city of Xalapa. This time, I fall promptly in love with the place—even as I feel more alone than ever.

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

Just a regular street in Xalapa.

December 22-25 (Days 899-902 of the Great Adventure)—To Veracruz

There was something thrilling about being in a real city again. A few of my stops were big-ish, like San Miguel, and Tula’s downtown certainly looks like it belongs in a sprawling metropolis, but Xalapa is a whole different caliber. As an example, my first night there I struggled to choose between three sushi places.

(Solution: I didn’t choose; I restaurant hopped.)

A street in the Centro area. Skateboarders loved this spot.

A street in the Centro area. Skateboarders loved this spot.

But I would soon discover that Xalapa isn’t just a big city. It’s a beautiful big city. It’s as if someone took the best climate, the best architecture, the best food and the best culture scene from all the other cool places and put them together. It’s hard to explain what’s so great about Xalapa, but I’ll try:

  • The climate is perfect. It’s in an area that’s warm and humid, but it’s situated 5,000 feet up a mountain so it never gets uncomfortably hot. It’s surrounded by cloud forest, so the air is fresh, clean and cool. Flowers and trees are everywhere
  • There are more public parks, and better ones, than I’ve seen anywhere in Mexico. These range from small statue gardens to typical Mexican squares to sprawling nature walks. Many streets are divided boulevards with landscaping in the middle. And you feel like you’re in the forest at all times (because, well, you are) with trees providing canopy between buildings.
  • Xalapa is known as the Athens of Mexico. It’s one of the oldest cities and had some of the first schools of the Colonial period. It has continued to be a hub of higher learning, the arts, and music through today. Even just the street musicians are a caliber above the rest of Mexico, much like those of New Orleans compared to the rest of the US.
  • As far as I can tell there are more coffee shops per capita than any city in the world. I even saw multiple tea houses, a rarity in Mexico.
An outdoor kitchen that makes fantastic breakfasts.

An outdoor kitchen that makes fantastic breakfasts.

There are probably some downsides to Xalapa, but I had a hard time finding them. Getting around might be tough: it’s as hilly as you’d expect for a mountain city, with lots of narrow winding roads. That could also make biking difficult, and I didn’t try out the public transportation. On the other hand, taxis were abundant and cheap.

Similarly, as with any city it’s probably only as nice as your wallet allows. But that’s what struck me: I wandered far and wide and never found a slum. I’m sure one exists, but it seems to have less poverty than most Mexican cities. Plus prices seemed overall reasonable. I was able to get plenty of cheap meals at nice little restaurants, including a Japanese noodle shop and an Italian kitchen.

Two women chatting at my favorite Italian restaurant in Xalapa, Trattoria Giovanni.

Two women chatting at my favorite Italian restaurant in Xalapa, Trattoria Giovanni.

Art & Literature

One thing I noticed the first day, Monday 12/22, was that I was treated like a normal human being. In much of Mexico, foreigners are treated like something of an oddity. We’re either an annoyance to be dealt with or we’re just a walking bag of money. Here, I was regarded as one more face in the crowd. I didn’t get any special treatment, which is how I like it.

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

One of many public sculpture gardens in Xalapa.

This attitude also extended to the local art scene. I walked past a building full of art studios, and paused as I realized these were actual studios, where artists work on their fine art—not tourist shops. I strolled past adverts for classes in sculpture, painting and drawing. There seems to be a true arts scene in Xalapa.

Likewise I could hardly choose a street to go down without tripping over a book store. Bookstores themselves aren’t unusual, but this many of them is. Once I found myself on a street where no less than three used bookstores occupied the same block as a second-floor bar called Bar de Poesía. Strong literary scene? I’m guessing yes.

Bar de Poesía.

Bar de Poesía.

What really struck me was how the arts were woven into everything. They weren’t confined to one neighborhood, but seeded throughout the city. On the second floor of one old house I spotted a coffee shop that also offered economy breakfasts, pizzas in the evening, and dance classes twice a week.

This is the cafe, "Casa Nadie." The name is a reference to a famous Mexican novel.

This is the cafe/cultural center, “Casa Nadie.” The name is a reference to a famous Mexican novel.

It might seem strange not to go to a museum in a city like this, but I didn’t have to. Everywhere I went I felt the pulse and hum of living art. This is something very few cities can lay claim to. New Orleans certainly can. I’m told Paris can, too. Xalapa is in some good company.

(Oddly, there were very few other foreigners in the city and from what I’ve read it doesn’t have a big ex-pat community. So if you’re looking for a “hidden gem” or “the next big thing,” get there before Lonely Planet does.)

The tree in the Centro.

The tree in the Centro.

The Christmas Scene

Part of the romance of my stay was undoubtedly the Hotel Salmones. It’s not an expensive hotel but it has a historic building and I loved my room. With a carpeted floor, white walls and dark wood trim, it looked like somewhere a writer would live in the 1930s. It had an actual writing desk, hard to find on this journey. To complete the air of faded luxury, there was even a burn mark from an iron in the floor.

This hotel put me just one street over from the centro. There, a giant cathedral loomed over a small square facing a government palace. The square was taken over by a towering Christmas tree, an expansive nativity scene, and a small night market. American Christmas carols blared over one loudspeaker while cumbia blared over another.

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

Residential alley one street from the Centro.

I passed this scene many times a day, and I’ll admit some loneliness. At one point, probably on Christmas Eve, I saw doñas carrying big covered platters on every side street, undoubtedly hurrying to dinner with their families. The holiday came and went, and I was far from everybody I love.

Fun Facts

I also learned some cool trivia about Xalapa. For instance:

  • It’s sometimes spelled Jalapa. Either way the initial sound is an H as in Harry.
  • Jalapeño peppers come from Xalapa. They were first cultivated here, and the name jalapeño literally just means “from Xalapa/Jalapa.”
  • People from this city are also called Jalapeños!
  • Despite being over an hour from the coast, Xalapa is the capital of Veracruz. You’d think the city called Veracruz would be, but no, that’s just a big dirty port town.

This is also one of the first places I saw Yucateco (Yucatán style) restaurants, which made me feel a lot closer to the end than I was, and one of the first stops where I could easily order wine at most restaurants (beer is much more common), which made for a couple of long lazy evenings.

A public park in Xalapa.

A public park in Xalapa.

A trail in the same public park.

A trail in the same public park.

A hut in the same park. Yes, open to the public.

A hut in the same park. Yes, open to the public.

A Future Home

I truly hope to return to Xalapa someday. After the Mexico bicycle ride I plan to do a writing sabbatical, and I’d intended to spend it in the Yucatán. But I’d only been in Xalapa two days or so before I started contemplating coming back instead. Even if I don’t do that, I can’t imagine that I won’t live in this city at some point in the future. Only time will tell when that might be.

A playground in Xalapa. Yes, the dragon is a slide. Its tail winds through the whole playground and eventually becomes a jungle gym.

A playground in Xalapa. Yes, the dragon is a slide. Its tail winds through the whole playground and eventually becomes a jungle gym.

Instead of the three days I planned, I extended my stay to four because of how it lined up with the holidays (at least, that’s what I told myself). I’d much rather be in my familiar room at the Salmones for Christmas than out on the road somewhere.

That road is calling, however, and next time I’ll set back out for the city of Veracruz, the glimmer of the Gulf of Mexico, and everything beyond. Until then, become a supporter and get a post card or check out my other road logs.

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The Prettiest Road in Mexico

Last time I swatted weevils in a string of valleys and reached the town of Huamantla. This time, I prepare for the final ascent to the mountain city of Xalapa—and the prettiest road I’ve seen.

Menu at the Aquellos Tiempos Cafe. Photo by Andre.

Menu at the Aquellos Tiempos Cafe. Photo by Andre.

December 19-20—Huamantla

Free as my life may seem at times, I do still work and my clients always come first. Unexpected work cropped up and, since I was in a comfortable enough stopping place, I took two days to finish it before moving on. The best place to get wi-fi at the Hotel Azucena was in its 50’s style diner, where I got to know the staff while spending hours typing away. I did try out their chocolate milkshake and I have to say it was perfect. Although Mexico does fruit smoothies really, really well, milkshakes tend to disappoint (whether called licuado de chocolate, chocomilk, or malteada). By American standards they come out thin and soupy. But someone in the nostalgically named Cafe Aquellos Tiempos (“Those Times Cafe”) knew what they were doing. On the other hand, the first time I ordered a cappuccino it arrived as little more than steamed milk. I made a face and the waiter understood immediately, remaking it with a good sense of humor. For the rest of those two days every time I walked into the cafe the staff teased me about what kind of cappuccino I wanted.

Other than that my time in Huamantla was uneventful. It’s known as one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (Magic Cities), just like Real de Catorce although for totally different reasons. It deserves the title, with a beautiful central jardín and lots of streets worth exploring. Its big claim to fame, however, is the annual Huamantla Fair. During the fair the streets are covered in elaborate “carpets” made of colored sawdust and flowers. They make more than four miles of these carpets the night before the big event, then march a religious procession over them.

One of the carpets at the Feria de Huamantla. Image by Rosalba Muñoz RomeroLia via Wikimedia Commons

That all happens in August, not December. The highlight of my stay was successfully requesting a beard trim in Spanish.

Sunday, December 21 (Day 898 of the Great Adventure)—To Xalapa

Xalapa was still a daunting 90 miles away, and I was determined to cover it all. Normally I’d break up this kind of run over a couple days, but the map showed no good towns to stop at. The geography didn’t help: I’d be climbing up over the last ridge of Mexico’s central mountains, then tipping over the peak for a race to the city. That last downhill run would be a thrill, if I could get that far.

I was in for a treat, however. This turned out to be the most beautiful road of my whole ride to date. An unfriendly wind gave way to a light cross breeze early on, and the terrain transformed continuously. The vast plains outside the city soon vanished and I entered a valley filled with a silver lake. The road was nothing more than a causeway, my bike and I a mere speck surrounded by mirror in all directions. On my left I could just spot an island with a rocky hill and its own stand of trees: the perfect place, I thought, for someone on a meditation retreat.

The valley lake and the causeway. Photo by André.

The valley lake and the causeway. Photo by André.

Marshes in the lake. Photo by André.

Marshes in the lake. Photo by André.

The outcropping in the marsh. Currently it's used for grazing cattle. Photo by André.

The outcropping in the marsh. Currently it’s used for grazing cattle. Photo by André.

Once across the lake I passed through a small town and turned onto a new highway, this one rising through chalky white hills covered in vicious green shrubs, the thorns of the desert swelled to tree-worthy proportions. Now and then, whenever they could find real soil, more hospitable vegetation filled in; lush tendrils hung down from secret ledges and draped the road above me.

Atop the white hills I stopped for a quick lunch. My venue was a simple gas station, but it was perched beside a vivid, sparkling, steel blue lake, still surrounded by bright white rock. It looked deep, cold and fresh, what they’d call a tarn in Scotland. (If Spanish has a word for it I have no idea what it is). A young guy stopped and chatted with me, showing me his own bike. I asked if he rides far and he named a town quite a ways off, and I nodded approvingly. It’s common to meet others with bikes, but not common that they enjoy riding long distances. He wished me well and cycled off.

Atop the white hills it was upland plains. Verdant cattle ranches tucked between round knobby rises in the land. The wind played behind me now, and stands of trees were less rare. I stopped under a line of them, ancient and now encroaching on the highway, for a water break.

I continued my new habit of listening to podcasts. I had finished Serial and gone through a fair number of Philosophy Bites episodes. I had high hopes for a new one, Modern Day Philosophers, which is comedians getting together to talk about famous philosophers and their ideas—but it was bad. It’s neither funny, nor particularly philosophic, and comes across more like the conversations you have on your couch when you’re stoned. Luckily I found Stuff You Should Know, one of the best podcasts yet.

Listening to these podcasts has really added something to my ride. I get to learn things and use my mind while I pedal. But I like cruising in silence, too. The time on the bike is meditative for me, and reflective; some of my best ideas come to me after hours of biking in solitude. So I’ve learned to strike a balance, using podcasts to feed my mind and using silence for the kind of discursive meditation that leads to new ideas. It’s consumption and creation in turns.

The last uphill miles were among the hardest. Lots of steep hills close together. But it also became completely wooded. Everything behind me was arid, blocked by mountains from the Gulf weather, but here I was in the cloud zone. Shady, humid and fragrant, I tried to imagine what it was like for the Aztecs or the Toltecs, ranging up from the desert, to stumble into a place so lush. No wonder they conquered it.

(Nowadays the forest hides ranches and small homes. Many are surrounded by mossy stone walls, and whole logs act as footbridges over ravines.)

I’ve developed a new habit. It’s hard to use CycleRoute.org, my topographic tool, on a mobile; instead I snap photos of my laptop screen the night before. As a result of this new practice I knew exactly when I had topped the last ridge, when I was at the height of the pass, 8,200 feet above the sea. Behind me was every highland struggle I had faced, and ahead was nothing but pure downhill. From here on there would be no more mountain ranges for the entire rest of Mexico. At that moment, just to my right was a shrine to Guadalupe. It reminded me of another mountain crossing that now seems so long ago.

Freefall

The descent was incredible. The forest parted and, on the first curve, I could see nothing but grey clouds to the east. It was as if the entire world dropped off. Somewhere underneath that mist was the coast, the distant city of Veracruz, and the closer city of Xalapa. But here, it was as if I was running on the edge of the earth, and nothing but an endless fall awaited me.

Two roads descend to Xalapa, a straighter main highway and a more winding country road. I tried to stick to the country road, but they cross each other several times. Traffic, although light, often pushed close together on the narrow two-lane roads. On the uphills they nudged gently around me, and on the downhills they gave me space—which I needed, swinging into the lane on the curves and letting gravity do the work. I wondered, on my first big drop, why everybody was riding their brakes and going so slow. Then I realized they weren’t: I was moving as fast as traffic.

Clouds where the earth should be. Photo by André.

Clouds where the earth should be. Photo by André.

These roads passed through several small towns, one of which seemed like it would be a nice place to stop, but I was too in love with the roller coaster ahead. I kept on, momentum from the downhills carrying me easily over most of the occasional upward slopes. Happiness is a downhill bike ride.

Xalapa

At some point I jumped the track over to the wrong road. I’d intended to enter Xalapa from the west, a straight shot to the Centro. Instead I plunged in from the north, all the way across town. Xalapa is a stunning city: I found myself on long boulevards shaded by mighty tropical trees, woven with walking paths on all the medians. Some of these boulevards were slightly uphill, and it actually felt weird to having to pedal again. (Although my hands were grateful: I’d leaned into the wind, fingers poised on the brake handles, for so long that my wrists were numb.)

Crossing the city wasn’t bad but, as is often the case, the most adventurous stretch was saved for last. As I neared the central historic district I found myself on stone-paved streets packed bumper to bumper with traffic, each block steeper than the one before it. When the lights turned green the cars, buses and trucks rocketed forward in great surges of machinery. Your Rogue Priest moved from one hole to another in this mix, often occupying “lanes” in between columns of traffic. One local bus that scooted past me had spikes on its wheels, which struck me as a bit unfair. The traffic turned away one block before my street, leaving me to face the final descent alone: a potholed street so steep my body weight fell forward toward the handlebars. Keeping the brakes half clamped, I hunkered low in the saddle and made it.

The bottom was busy again. I turned left into a tunnel underneath a park and emerged from the other side on a perfectly normal, somewhat quiet downtown street. A few blocks later I was at my hotel for the night, the Salmones. 90.2 miles.

Map 1 – 51.2 miles

Map 2 – 39.0 miles

Total traveled this leg: 90.2 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3997.1 miles

Next time I discover that Xalapa is more or less the city of my dreams—and I’ll take you on a tour to show you why. Until then, check out my other road logs or become a supporter.

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

The Road to Huamantla is Long and Bears Many Weevils

Last time I crashed a toll gate and made it to Sahagun City, a town with more factories than churches and more prostitutes than beds to put them in. Now the famed Athens of Mexico, Xalapa, looms in the distance—but first I need to make Huamantla.

Feria de Huamantla. Image by Rosalba Muñoz RomeroLia via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 18 (Day 895 of the Great Adventure)—Running the Valley

Today was one of the finest bicycling days ever, but it started off rough. I needed breakfast and to get it I would have to leave the warmth of the Tulipanes and step out into the highland morning. It was brisk.

I figured it wouldn’t be an issue, since the place where I had dinner the night before also boasted a breakfast menu. Ten shivering minutes of bicycling later, it turned out they were closed.

I bicycled back and forth across the central part of Sahagún looking for any place that was open. Nothing but open-air tents with street food. Normally this would be fine, but let me put the temperature in perspective: I began biking one-handed so I could shove the other one into a pocket or my armpit. After I lost sensation in my ears and fingers, I ducked into an Oxxo convenience store and bought a hot coffee just so I could hold it.

After warming up I decided I had no choice. I either had to eat outside or depart hungry. I walked across the street and grabbed a plastic stool at one of the tents, clutching my styrofoam cup for heat.

The plus side of this experience was that I got to try barbacoa for the first time. It’s hard to believe I’ve spent so much time in Mexico over the years and never tried it. Barbacoa means “barbeque” but in context it means goat meat slow-cooked in its own juices (originally, wrapped in leaves and buried in a pit with hot coals). This isn’t what you get when you order barbacoa in the U.S.—usually they use beef.

[André’s note: I wrote a whole piece about the difference between US tacos and Mexican tacos here.]

Barbacoa is a classic Sunday morning breakfast in Mexico and some places serve it seven days a week. If you’re saying to yourself, wait, barbeque for breakfast? then you understand why I never tried it. I could have easily twisted my Mexican friends’ arms to do the whole barbacoa brunch thing but before noon my stomach is more of a granola and fruit type.

I still felt that way this morning, and as hungry as I was the thought of a giant lump of meat made me a little bit queasy. But it was time to cowboy up and do as the Romans do, when the Romans visit Mexico.

It was actually damn good. The goat meat is cut thick and was still a touch pink in the middle, like good roast beef. It was tender, flavorful, and not overly musty (the smell or taste of goat stank is one of my least favorite things in the world). It was served with fresh made tortillas, plus chopped onion, cilantro, fresh limes, and a variety of salsas. I scattered/squeezed/spooned all of these toppings onto my goatastic taco… and loved it.

At the time I knew little about barbacoa. I now know that the broth it’s cooked in is also served as a soup, and I really should have ordered both. Instead I had several of these giant tacos. It did feel a little bit like rocks in my stomach, but soon I was ready to hit the road.

The Back Road Out

My destination for the day was Huamantla, a small city about a third of the way to Xalapa. Luckily, I wasn’t getting back on the toll road (I assume they still have an APV out for me). Instead I’d cut through Sahagún’s twin city Tepeapulco and then take rural routes east. I gathered my things at the Tulipanes, shook hands with the owner, and saddled up.

It was still chilly out but I didn’t feel cold for long. Right out of the gate I had to ascend a couple thousand feet over just nine miles—exactly as difficult as it sounds. The uphill started with the main street of Tepeapulco and didn’t end until long after the last view of the city was lost behind me. But those upland surrounds were stunning. By now I was in an area that had occasional wisps of forest, and lots of open prairie. Seeing the wooded, sunlit mountains over the green and gold valley would have caught my breath if I had any left to catch. I took frequent rest breaks, one of them beside a sign for Rancho Quince Hermanos, the Ranch of 15 Brothers. I thought of their poor mother and winced.

At the top, I managed to snag footage of these surroundings—and then mounted my camera to the front of the Giant. I wanted supporters to see how amazing it is to fly down these slopes. The sense of speed, the scenery, keeping pace with speeding cars… you can see the video yourself by becoming a supporter.

I passed through a smaller town that was preparing for a festival, coasting through empty tent pavilions and half-strung paper decorations. Then it was open country for a long time. The road followed the line of a series of valleys. Blue mountains always loomed to either side, with nothing but green windy grassland in the foreground. It was lonely and perfect.

Peaceful Valleys and Flesh Eating Insects

The map also said I’d be passing through a large national park or reserve of some kind, but it was pretty much all farmland. How do national parks work in Mexico? Can you lease the land for agriculture? That doesn’t seem like good policy, but I get the sense Mexico isn’t huge on environmental preservation. Bear in mind that I spend much of my time either behind or next to semi trucks, and I can tell you that either this fine nation does not have the same emissions laws as the US, or the laws go unenforced.

It was around this time that I began listening to podcasts while pedaling. I’ve never done this before. Occasionally I’ll listen to music (with just one ear bud on—covering both ears can be dangerous) but I didn’t know much about podcasts.

This was when everybody I knew was obsessed with Serial, however, and I decided to fire it up. It was good—really good. It was satisfying in the same way as reading the New Yorker but it was something I could do on my bike. So I learned about Adnan and the case against him as I passed through what may be the prettiest valley in Mexico.

After another small town and a couple more twists and turns, I turned from one rural highway to another and entered more rolling terrain with lots of rushing streams. At a brief water break, I felt a tickle on my leg: a little black weevil that writhed around as I brushed him off. I thought nothing of it.

Until another one landed on my arm.

This one bit me. Not super painful, just annoying. I flicked him off and I could tell that the writhing was an attempt to hold on tight.

Then I felt this itching and went to scratch it, somewhere on my back or shoulder. Mid-scratch I realized there was something under my shirt. You guessed it, weevil No. 3.

These little bastards were tenacious. There was a strong cross breeze and I think they only landed on me by accident as I moved across their flight path. But they were not in short supply. And they all had the same instinct: if you land on this guy, get under his clothing! Tent party!

I’m sure I was bit a few dozen times, and had to swat, flick or pinch more weevils than that. Each one wiggled and writhed as I plucked it out from under my shirt.

Mid afternoon I stopped in a small town to eat and refresh my water. Between wind, weevils and a lackadaisical pace I still had a long way to go, so I crammed a couple pastries from a local bakery (always the healthy choice) and pushed on.

Towns with Culture

Late afternoon found me in the larger town of Apizaco, more like a small city. Apizaco is a really pleasant place that showed all the signs of being worth a visit: an active centro, lots of restaurants, and a mix of historic buildings, monuments and landscaping that shows some local pride. I actually thought about stopping for the night. In the past I had regretted passing up cute towns. Would I be happier just staying?

I chose to push on, and this time it was a choice I’d be happy with. Still fighting a headwind, the final 15 miles or so to Huamantla was a slog, but one with some pretty vistas (I remember a long tree-lined section quite fondly). I had to go up one last slope, and once I crested it I got my first look at my home for the night.

Huamantla is a happening town. Smaller than Apizaquito, but not much, with a bustling night market around the centro. I tilted my helmet down to shade my eyes, put on some jams and coasted down the big downhill into town. As I burst into the central jardín, a few police and some young women looked at me in surprise. Apparently they don’t get a lot of itinerant bicyclists.

I’d chosen a hotel in advance, the Azucena, which is attached to its own 1950’s style diner/malt shop. I paid for a room, made my peace with the questionable wi-fi, and rolled the Giant through the door.

59.3 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 59.3

Total traveled since Day 1: 3906.9

Next time, what the heck does it take to get a cappuccino and a beard trim? Until then, check out past road logs or become a supporter (yes, you can still get a postcard!).

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