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

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

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

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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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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Fleeing Down the Federal Highway

Last time I found myself tripping down pyramids in Tula de Allende. This time I saddle up to get back on the road again—but not if the highway patrol has anything to say about it.

Other cyclists getting a friendly police escort on the toll highway. Photo via Ginger Ninjas.

Wednesday, December 17 (Day 894 of the Great Adventure)—To Sahagun City

Before departing there had to be a photo shoot. Roberto, the friendly hotel owner, didn’t think it was enough to just give me a free breakfast and a free extra night’s stay; now that I was finally going he also wanted my picture for his personal hall of fame. (Ezra had requested the same thing at the Brazilian restaurant. I was starting to feel like a bona fide celebrity.)

For a true Mexican marketing shot there had to be ladies. He recruited two of his female employees and soon they were posed to either side of me, my arms around them. I don’t envy them: I had just slipped into my bicycling shirt with all the pit stains and B.O. that implies. If they caught a whiff, however, they didn’t show it. After the last photo Roberto and I shook hands and I mounted up. I raised my fist in a final salute and whooshed off from the Cuellar for the last time.

Straightaway I turned against traffic on the main one-way road, plowing past vehicles and singing Vodou songs as I went. The policía noticed me but didn’t care: like posing with adoring women, breaking traffic rules is simply part of the Mexican way.

Gate Crashin’

Thanks to my trip to the pyramids, I knew that the way ahead included a giant hill—basically climbing out of the river gorge the downtown is in—and I didn’t even try to bike it. Pushing the giant up the slope added a fresh layer of sweat to my bike shirt, but once at the top I figured it’d be smooth sailing. (This was also when I saw the Mastur-Bar.)

Smooth sailing it was not. Not far out of town I turned to get back on the Arco Norte, the cuota (federal toll road) that would take me east out of the highlands. You may recall that when I arrived in Tula, the guard at the toll gate made a show of waving me through (and that I was a touch ungrateful). Apparently they put all the nice guys on the night shift, however, because the cabrón at the gate was not there to welcome me.

“Buenos dias,” I called as I moved to bike around him.

“(Bunch of stuff in Spanish!)” he said. He waved for me to pull over. Aw hell.

He explained to me that bikes aren’t allowed on the toll road, a fact of which I was well aware—though this is rarely enforced. I pretended I didn’t understand; sometimes that helps.

Not this time.

He repeated his point with detestable patience.

I adopted a mournful look. “But… I need to get to Tepeapulco.”

This was the pragmatic approach. Tepeapulco is a day’s ride away, with no other roads heading there besides the cuota. Perhaps if it seemed like the only way—

“Too bad,” he said. “You’ll have to apply for permission.”

What?

“Head over to the main office and request permission. If you get a pass, you can use the cuota.”

Oh shit. This was worse than being turned away. Worse than being arrested. He was using bureaucracy.

I considered my options: try to bribe him, or look for another way. I got the sense that he was just the sort of jerk who wouldn’t accept a bribe. He was doing things by the book. No, this is the kind of guy who wears tighty whiteys.

Another plan took form, however. “Where’s the office?” I asked.

He pointed across the freeway. Basically, the situation was this:

Biking on Cuota Problem

I thanked him and turned the bike around, never directly saying I’d head to the office. I had no intention of doing so. If you understand how Mexican bureaucracy works, you know I have a better chance of being elected presidente than getting approved for a cuota pass. Even if I did get approved—which would hinge entirely on some official taking a shine to me—I’d be there for hours. More likely it’d be a waste of a whole day.

Under the overpass I went. The office and its turnoff loomed on my left. I passed them both. A glance over my shoulder confirmed it: I was now out of view of the toll goat.

And here, on the other side of the freeway, was the other on-ramp.

I went up the ramp and slowed my pace. There was, of course, another toll gate. I had no idea if the various gate guards were in radio contact, or if a rogue bicyclist was the kind of thing they’d report to one another. But I wasn’t taking chances. This time, I needed subterfuge.

It didn’t take long. A semi chugged up the ramp behind me. As soon as he passed I fell in behind him, veering over on his left side away from the gatehouse. He slowed for the toll and I had no trouble keeping up.

Thus hidden on the blind side of the truck, the gate agents never saw me coming. But they sure would see me crossing. As the semi braked, I hit the pedals with all the muscles the mountains had given me. Third gear… fourth gear… get those sinews firing.

Vrap-ap-ap-ap! I hit the first vibration strip approaching the gate house. The semi stopped. Vrap-ap-ap-ap! A water bottle leapt out of the front basket. Intimate parts of me begged for mercy.

Head down, eyes forward, crank those legs. And… whoosh! I popped out from beside the semi, cannonballing the gate.

In my peripheral I saw the person inside the gatehouse. They didn’t immediately charge out at me, and I didn’t acknowledge them in any way. Somebody yelled something. It might have been an angry halt! or a friendly adios! or just whoa! in surprise. I told myself there was no way a gate guard was gonna come running after a cyclist, and plunged forward.

I swerved around the gate arm and careened past. Never even slowed. Then I was through and up the on-ramp I chugged. There was no more yelling (and no gunshots), but I kept cranking those pedals like the devil was on me.

One problem: I needed to go east, and this onramp was for westbound traffic. At the top I sliced left. Soon I was barreling down the freeway shoulder… going the wrong way.

Wrong-way cycling isn’t unusual. Some readers have suggested it’s actually safer, and most of the Mexican cyclists I pass seem to agree. But it was my first time, and seeing that first 75 mph semi coming at me was a thrill.

Of course, now that I was up on the freeway there was a chance the original cabrón would spot me as I passed his on-ramp. But I figured, (a) there was a lot of stuff between us, (b) he was probably looking the other way, at traffic pulling into his gate, and (c) bite me.

Basically I’d pulled one of these numbers:

Biking on Cuota Solution

I kept up the speed for the first half mile or so. No squad of motorcycle cops appeared in my mirror. I breathed a sigh of relief and looked to the road ahead.

Traffic was light, and after a couple miles I crossed to the grassy median, then over to the proper side where I normally ride. I was pretty pleased to have crashed the gate, but there was no guarantee I was in the clear. If the guards really cared they could call the policía. It could be 20 minutes or three hours before they picked me up; I wasn’t hard to miss.

But there was nothing for it. I had rogued my way onto this freeway and if need be I’d just rogue my way off of it.

[André’s note: I don’t field the slightest bit bad about this maneuver, and will try to explain a little more of how road rules work in Mexico in a future post.]

The scenery was pleasant. It seemed flat to me, even though it was hilly terrain that passed over occasional mountain ridges. It was certainly nothing compared to the 9,000 foot monster I’d struggled over previously.

A couple hours later there was an exit/entrance with a gatehouse. I wasn’t exiting, so I didn’t need to go through. But as I went past one of the  guards turned toward me.

I did what I always do with authority figures in Mexico, which is say hi and act friendly. I threw him a wave and a buenas tardes, hoping to cruise past. But that wasn’t enough. He waved for me to stop.

My Spanish had come a long way, but there are a lot of accents and dialects in Mexico. I had a hard time understanding this guy. Whatever the first thing was that he said, I legitimately didn’t understand it. He pointed at the freeway and repeated it, saying something about safety. So, maybe: you can’t ride out there, it isn’t safe?

I begged to differ. “No, it’s very safe,” I insisted. “There’s a big shoulder.”

He then said something about the gate and exit beside him. Perhaps telling me to exit and get the heck off this freeway. I asked him to repeat this too. He did, but simply said something else about my safety.

He didn’t seem angry and wasn’t giving me an order. I decided to thank him for being concerned about my safety. This seemed to satisfy him. I thanked him again, waved and got on the bike.

He didn’t move to stop me.

So, more confused than ever, I bicycled away. The gate guard watched me go.

This whole thing is still a mystery to me. I suppose the most likely story is he got a call over the radio about a bicyclist on the freeway and he figured he’d give me a little lecture. But this is so strange. For one thing, no one ever cared before when I biked on the cuotas—I’d stopped and talked with police on them. And if he got a call about me, you’d think he’d detain me or order me off. My main takeaway from the whole affair was a fleeting nostalgia for the “good old days” in the border zone where my only worry was being murdered.

Hotels By the Hour

My destination for the night was either Sahagun City or Tepeapulco, depending on which map you consulted. They’re actually two small cities that smashed together as they grew. Sahagun City was slightly closer, and after 60 miles I figured that was the best choice.

What’s interesting is that it’s called Sahagun City on all the maps, with the English word city. I’m not sure if this is a translation issue (like how we translate Mexico City) or has a historical reason. But I’ve only once seen it called Ciudad Sahagún.

The exit for Sahagun City didn’t look like an exit at all. It was rolling green and gold land all around, with no signs of a city. Mountains hemmed the highway on both sides, and from my phone it looked like Sahagun must lie beyond them. The valley itself was completely abandoned.

But there was a gate house at the exit, of course. This time I neither greeted nor waved, just barreled through. I did get a glimpse of some surprised looking gate guards but they didn’t come out of the booth. I was back on free roads again—where bicycles are as welcome as the tourist dollars they bear—and headed toward the invisible city.

That last jaunt in the countryside was pleasant. It reminded me of rural Wisconsin (except not flat). Soon it became industrial, however; turns out Sahagun City is built on gravel pits, fabrication plants and other large industry. As the green-gold disappeared behind me, clouds of dust and diesel exhaust hemmed in.

The place didn’t look too happy. The ride in showed a lot of unhappy faces coming to or from a lot of low paying jobs. I followed the signs for a hotel, located on a side street of gated condos. While more upscale, this didn’t make me feel any more at home, and neither did the hotel prices: $1,300 pesos a night, three to four times what I normally pay. I laughed when the woman told me the number, and she smiled good naturedly—not a hint of disdain for this filthy bicyclist before her. I really appreciated that.

The search continued. I went through a truly depressing park and finally found a street with food stalls, shops and foot and car traffic. It also had two hotels. At the first, I rolled the Giant into the parking garage (completely empty except for a couple old box springs), timing my entrance carefully between the bottle rockets local kids were shooting into it. In the lobby, I found a 16 year old girl behind a plate glass window.

“Can I see a room?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

Wow.

After some back and forth I understood the reason. She was the only one there. I can’t fault her for not going upstairs with a man she doesn’t know, though it seems like bad hotel policy. I kept my money and walked back out the door (and back out of the parking garage, still under barrage.)

The next hotel was more promising, situated right next to a pleasant pedestrians-only alley with a restaurant and shops. But the door, semi-hidden, was crowned with a big sign:

Special! $100/hour

I left.

At this point the sun was setting. I was hungry and tired. I turned onto another major street, starting to wonder if I’d need to go up the hill to Tepeapulco after all.

That’s when I passed a hotel named Tulipanes (Tulips) painted in bright, pretty colors. I nearly screeched to a halt and did a U-turn to dive into its parking area.

Neither the parking area nor the stairway up into the building were much to look at. Inside, there was no lobby; the owner’s office was in one of the hotel rooms, and he led me up to the third floor to show me a room.

“It’s only you?” he asked.

“Just me.”

“I only have rooms with two beds.”

“Is the price the same?”

“Yes, but you have to promise to only use one bed.”

Wow.

“I promise,” I said.

He showed me to a very clean room with a brand new bathroom and big, sunny windows. It was perfect.

“I’ll take it.”

“Okay, but it’s not available until 7:00.”

I thought I didn’t hear him right, but he repeated himself.

I looked around.

“Why not?”

“Someone else has it rented but it will be available in a few hours.”

I looked around the spotless, uninhabited room. “But there are no suitcases,” I said. I felt like I was being conned.

He could sense my frustration and reassured me. “Don’t worry, I have a different room.”

“And it’s available now?”

“Yes!”

I mentally translated Well why didn’t you show me that one first? but let it pass. The other room was similar, spotless and new, a little less sunny. “I’ll take it.”

We went through a seemingly interminable process in his office/bedroom until, eventually, I had the key. I brought my bags up, but not the Giant (third floor, remember?) which I locked to a cement mixer in the parking area. The manager returned to my door several times with more information for me (the water heater is new, here’s the remote for your TV, etc.). At first I thought he was looking over my shoulder but, in retrospect, I think he was nervous about whether or not I would like the place. It was obviously a fairly new hotel.

And I made full use of that fairly new shower. I kept thinking about how he said to use just one bed: was he going to double up a second guest in my room? Putting the thought out of my mind, I went out for a dinner of pozole, picked up some water and hurried back. The freezing highland night had set in.

Exhausted, I snuggled under the covers and read till I fell asleep. Rocky first impression notwithstanding, the Tulipanes kept me warm and I slept with joy.

63.2 miles

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 63.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 3847.6

Next time I make an unplanned stop at one of Mexico’s “Magic Cities.” Until then you can check out all my road logs.

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On Reaching the End of Mexico

Photo by André

Photo by André

So, here is an overdue but very exciting update: on the afternoon of Saturday, February 7 I rolled out of Pisté, Mexico, past the great pyramids of Chichen Itza, and some 40 miles to the town of Valladolid. When I reached the Valladolid’s central plaza I had officially reached the end point of the Fellowship of the Wheel ride across Mexico.

To say it felt incredible is an understatement. I’ve reflected a lot on this journey: how exciting it was to see others eager to join, how painful it was when it became a fellowship of one, and how many discoveries, mysteries and new friends I’ve found along the way.

Most of all I’m in awe that this journey has become every much the way I dreamed it would be. I think I’ve come of age as an adventurer, so to speak. I finally know how to make everything come together on the road and truly enjoy my time doing it. There were setbacks and challenges, but for the most part these ninety days of bicycling were happy ones. They proved to me that adventure really does have the power to transform lives.

There’s a lot I still need to write about this trip, but I didn’t want to put off at least announcing the finish any longer. The rest of the road logs will appear in the coming weeks. And yes, after a lengthy stop for writing, I will eventually continue on across Central and South America, always on the quest to meet the gods.

Thank you everyone who has supported the journey. I’m eternally grateful to have you with me.

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The Last Mark of the Toltec Empire

Last time I went over a 9,000 foot mountain to reach the city of Tula de Allende. Now it’s time to rest and explore the city—and its ancient pyramids.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Approach to the pyramids at Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

December 13-16 (Days 890-893 of the Great Adventure)—Tula Days

Tula still felt “different” from other cities in Mexico. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was one of the nicest centros of any city I’d been to, with the main square surrounded entirely by walking malls. But that wasn’t it.

I pondered as I wandered around looking for a lunch spot. The city reminded me a lot of Thailand. But why? What gave me the same vibe in both places?

At the end of one walking mall was a torta shop (sandwich shop) that I knew I had to go into. It was on the second floor, with a tiny street level door and no advertising, yet the balcony had plenty of customers. Local secret? I squeezed in under their only sign: “Suba Ud.” Come upstairs, please.

Their Cuban sandwich didn’t disappoint, except that it was twice the size of my head and way too much to eat alone. The view from the balcony, once I managed to snag a table there, wasn’t bad either. And it was there that I realized what made Tula so different from other Mexican towns.

Everything was new.

I mean, not new new. It definitely had its share of run-down buildings. But none looked older than the 1960s, and many more recent than that. Concrete and steel buildings rose from wide, well paved streets with real sidewalks. They weren’t skyscrapers, and rarely even high rises, but they were markedly different from the colonial or plaster structures dominating most Mexico downtowns.

(And that was a big part of why it seemed so Chiang Mai-esque to me, along with the weather we were experiencing that week.)

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

View from the sandwich shop balcony. Photo by André.

Despite its size and modernity there was relatively little to do. I found two cafes worth visiting, one of without wifi and the other rarely open. Oddly, I could never pick up a Telcel signal in the centro proper, as if the whole area was jammed by the Soviets. As a result I had to work mainly at the hotel or, one afternoon, at a second story bar with dubstep music and its own wifi. In the evenings only a few sit-down restaurants were open. Maybe it was just the adjustment from San Miguel, where there was so much to do and I had friends to talk to, but I found myself feeling lonely and uncomfortable.

I went back to the Brazilian restaurant twice during my stay. Once to try out their breakfast menu, which was good, and once to experience the famed grilled meat parade. Ezra was excited for me to try it, and served me personally. He brought over sword after sword of flame-touched meats: salted beef, tender filet, succulent pork loin, chistorra, and a dozen others each more delicious than the last. Each of these is fire-roasted on the sword just seconds before serving and sliced paper-thin onto your plate. In between rounds he brought over skewers of roasted pineapple.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

Ezra grilling meat on a sword. Photo by André.

I’ve only experienced this kind of Brazilian grill once before, and I have to say Ezra’s was better. Maybe it was just that I knew how to pace myself better, or maybe it was that he didn’t try to fill me up on starters first. But at the end of the meal, instead of slow and heavy, I felt satisfied and mildly euphoric. Thanks, Ezra.

(Incidentally, the restaurant also served a great sopa Azteca. It’s a uniquely Mexican dish that involves a creamy red soup with bits of meat, ropes of melted white cheese, and freshly fried tortilla strips in it, plus fresh avocado. Ironically, this non-Aztec couple made the best Aztec soup I’ve ever had. I would go back for that alone.)

Meanwhile, the owner of the Hotel Cuellar, Roberto, also made my stay more memorable. He was really interested in my bike ride, even more so after I told him I’m a writer. I’ve become well versed at explaining in Spanish what Lúnasa Days is about, but I always apologize because it’s only available in English (yet). That didn’t phase him. His English is about as good as my Spanish, and he asked if I would autograph a copy if he ordered it. I agreed, although we both knew it wouldn’t arrive in time for me to do so.

My second evening there he told me that I was getting free breakfast the next day. I was a bit wowed and thanked him warmly. After the exchange, though, I wondered if I’d understood correctly. Maybe I was getting too cocky in my Spanish skills? But sure enough, the next morning at the hotel cafe the doña who runs the kitchen came out and showed me the menu for their “desayuno ejecutivo” (executive breakfast) and told me there’d be no charge.

The third day was pyramid day. It’s funny… I’ve gone to such great lengths to see all these ancient sites. Yet on that day all I really wanted to do was hang out in the hotel room and read. Just get some R&R. I would’ve been perfectly to miss out on one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the Americas, the former capital of the Toltec empire.

But what kind of Adventure would that be? I set down the book and hopped on the Giant. You can take a city bus to the pyramids, but I liked the idea of cycling across town. The Tula Archaeological Site is located just a few kilometers from the current city center, surrounded by neighborhoods on two sides. After confirming directions I set off.

The route crossed the river and immediately went up a giant hill, the opposite side of the gorge I’d descended a few days before. Barely able to breathe at the top, I made a mental note not to try pedaling up it when the Giant was fully loaded with gear.

After that the ride was easy. 10 minutes later I coasted into the Tula National Park, home of the Archaeological Site. It had a landscaped entry and vast parking areas, all almost empty. Maybe it was because it was a Monday, but Mexico’s archaeological museums always seem drastically under-attended to me.

As I wondered where to chain up the bike, a security guard suggested I walk it right up to the front door of the museum and lock it to a tree. That done, I paid my entrance and spotted a sign near the entrance. It kindly informed me that I could report any complaints “or insults” by phone, mail, email or in person. I wondered how many insults I should expect.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

Toltec or pre-Toltec pottery in the museum. Photo by André.

The Tula archaeological site consists of three main areas: first the indoor museum, with replicas of many of the artifacts and the usual informational panels. Then a long outdoor walk from the museum to the pyramids themselves. (I suppose they couldn’t break ground for the museum building too close to the archaeological site). Finally, the remains of ancient Tula’s downtown, which have been painstakingly unearthed by archaeologists.

I wasn’t too interested in the museum, not because I dislike them (I love them) but because I was eager to see the real deal. But I’m glad I walked through. I got a lot of interesting background information on the culture and the art that I’d see. And the three dimensional model of the site would help me orient myself once I got out there.

The walk out was surreal. Sometime I think Mexican museums have self esteem issues. I’m not sure they believe people will really come just to see pyramids and amazing artifacts. There’s always some kind of side attraction, a sort of “AND you get to see…” to sweeten the deal. In Tula’s case it’s this desert version of a hedge maze. White rocks and cacti sprawl along winding, tangled pathways. I stuck to the outside, skirting past the labyrinth and heading for the Toltec ruins.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

Part of the labyrinth side show. Not quite David Bowie material.

I wasn’t there yet, though. The path is a zig-zag, making right angle turns that nearly double your walking time. This has two effects: you can’t directly see the pyramids until you turn the final corner (kind of cool), and you’re forced to walk through repeated encampments of vendors hawking their wares (moan). I assured row after row of peddlers that I needed neither a jaguar statue, nor a traditional flute, nor even a handmade rosary. Ironically, if any of them had just offered me a bottle of ice cold water I would’ve thrown pesos at them.

(I actually had water with me—I have learned a couple of tricks on this Adventure—but this is a hike through a shadeless desert. I mean come on.)

Finally I reached the pyramids themselves. My first view was from the end of the trail, with the main pyramid framed perfectly by a lone shade tree and a little bench at the trail head (image at top). Fluffy clouds filtered the desert sun and the whole place looked serene and magical. I was happy I’d come.

To one side was the remains of the ball court. I think we all know about the Mesoamerican soccer-like game where the losing team was sacrificed, so I won’t go into that. What struck me was how profoundly practical the structure was. It wasn’t that different from a stadium today, and was optimized for handling a giant amount of people. I could picture a family tripping up the stairs with kids in tow, trying to pull the niños away from vendors at the entrance (probably selling jaguar statues). The fact that lives hung in the balance was as prosaic as an NFL player pulling a hamstring.

Next I went to the main pyramid, dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The trail approached from the rear. On the far side was the central plaza of ancient Tula, surrounded by the remains of dozens of public buildings. There was nothing I wanted to do more than run up to the top of that pyramid, but I took my time, wandering around the back first and looking at the carvings in the reconstructed perimeter wall. I was glad I did—these are things I wouldn’t have taken the time for after I’d already been to the top, and they were stunning.

Finally I made my way around front. Hundreds of white columns rose from the ruins of an old palace to my right, but I focused on the pyramid. A few other groups of visitors milled about, some on top, some around the bottom and one pair coming down. I sized up the steps and began the ascent.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

Ruins of the Palace. Photo by André.

I remember that when I climbed the steps of Chichén Itzá I was terribly winded. But I was in worse shape back then, and I took this pyramid with ease. Even so, coming up eye level with the top was a powerful experience, one that made you feel as if suddenly you couldn’t go on.

I found myself looking up at the Atlantes, the 12-foot tall stone warriors that hold watch over the temple’s top. I placed my hand over my heard in a discreet salute and stepped up.

The Atlantes. Photo by André

The Atlantes. Photo by André

It’s hard to write about standing atop the pyramid. It’s like this is where I’m supposed to say something deep, because I’m looking for the gods, right? But I feel like I said everything I had to say in the video log I sent my supporters. The truth is I felt conflicted. It’s this spiritual place, but it’s also a museum. I was surrounded by other tourists each having their own experiences. The top of the pyramid seemed to be a concrete slab, which made me wonder how it had been reconstructed and whether the Atlantes were even in the right places. I think the most profound spiritual experiences happen in places of solitude; and this temple is now a place of learning and selfies, not so much a place of prayer.

But there was an undeniable majesty looking out over the old city forum, vaster than some towns itself and now completely empty; the palaces and temples and the other pyramid, in worse condition, not far off from this one. All of it haunted by the specter of the sacrifices that once took place there. How can you look down from that spot, picture the city as it once was, and not imagine the knife coming down?

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

The other pyramid. Photo by André.

(If you want to see this place for yourself, supporters get full access to the video log I made.)

As I stood contemplating this a young Colombian couple asked if I’d take their picture. We conversed in Spanish (I’m on a roll!) but they seemed eager to be off. I watched them make their descent on the giant stone steps.

The sound of a flute drifted over the site, played by an enterprising vendor who’d eschewed the merch stalls to wander with his wares. It was right to hear that plaintive trill over this empty place. And it was time to make my offering.

I accepted that other tourists would watch me do this, including a group led by someone with the air of an anthropologist. But they kept a respectful distance, and the incense lit easily. I  tucked it into a crack at the top of the steps, in view of the Atlantes.

Oh, Quetzalcoatl, I prayed:

This incense comes not from me, but from my friend Sky and from Guadalupe, whom you know by another name. Today is her holy day, and she sent this for you. I hope the scent will please you.

The smoke curled up to the sky and the flute broke the silence. Does Quetzalcoatl miss the taste of human sacrifice? Or was it something he never wanted in the first place?

I descended. On the way out I took off-road footpaths used by the vendors (they sure weren’t walking at right angles after a long shift). This saved time and evaded most of the sales pitches. After the final jaunt across the labyrinth it was back to the museum, the Giant, and the road home.

When I got there the hotel owner had another present for me. “Are you staying another day tomorrow?” he asked.

“I dunno,” I admitted. I didn’t really feel like moving on just yet, but this was my last planned day in Tula. “I was thinking of leaving in the morning.”

He nodded. “Well if you decide to stay, I’d like to give you a night for free.”

That took me back. This time I confirmed that I’d understood correctly. It seemed like too much: a free breakfast is one thing, but comping me $500 pesos (really $600) is big. I wondered what the catch could be. But in a situation like this, all I have to go on is my sense of people, and my sense of Roberto is that he’s a friendly, kind person. I felt humbled by the offer and gratefully accepted.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

Bridge in Tula de Allende. Photo by André.

That extra day allowed me to work ahead on client projects and explore the town some more. Discoveries included rope bridges crossing the river in the center of town (not decorative or for play—these were functional rope bridges used as pedestrian thoroughfares). They anchored to a cute neighborhood on one side and a sort of mini park on the other, and helped connect the two halves of town. Unfortunately, the river smelled like an open sewer and I didn’t spend much time in the park.

Tula marked a turning point in my Adventure. It was the first time ever that I’ve had good enough Spanish to make friends and be social without the “in” of a local acquaintance or a language school. Even though I’d felt lonely and isolated when I showed up, I managed to experience moments of warmth with people I’d never met before and will likely never see again. For that, I’m grateful.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Cool old car in Tula that made me think of my Dad.

Next time, I leave Tula and get back on the highway—but I have to crash a gate to do it. Until then, check out my other road logs.

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