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.
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.
Total traveled this leg: 59.3
Total traveled since Day 1: 3906.9