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.


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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