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…
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Total traveled this leg: 61.7.
Total traveled since Day 1: 4,171.